Why the hell, Le Pen asks, should French voters be less free than the British?

12 Apr

An unenviable choice faces French voters. On the one hand they could stick with Emmanuel Macron, who has strutted and fretted his hour upon the international stage, or at least has sat at the other end of an enormous marble table to Vladimir Putin.

Macron pretended, perhaps even to himself, that he could avert the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He couldn’t, and now hastens, before the final round of the presidential election on 24 April, to try to reconnect with a sufficient number of his compatriots by pretending that he cares about such mundane questions as the price of petrol.

When ConservativeHome profiled Macron, we noted that he

“is extraordinarily good at attracting attention to himself, and thus denying it to his opponents, who face an unenviable choice between being sane but invisible, or else insane but unelectable.”

Marine Le Pen, who in 2017 reached the final of the last presidential election but then lost to Macron by the decisive margin of 34 to 66 per cent, has this time sought with some success to be sane but electable.

When ConHome profiled Le Pen in 2015, it noted that she was trying to learn from the mistakes of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in 2002 terrified the French establishment by reaching the second round of the presidential election, but who then lost by 18 per cent to 82 per cent to Jacques Chirac, because even the Left rallied round to stop Le Pen:

“most of her life has been devoted to her father’s movement, and in recent years to its ‘de-demonisation’: the striking of a more moderate tone, which makes it harder to write her and her followers off as a band of repellent racists.”

The younger Le Pen has striven with considerable success to seem unthreatening, and for a time, Macron underestimated her. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard observes in The Daily Telegraph:

“The Élysée has been strangely slow to see the danger of her pastoral style of campaigning, and her new, carefully cultivated image as the matron of the nation, photographed with her six cats (she has just got her breeding licence).”

Le Pen is closer to Putin than Macron. She is so disreputable, so hostile to immigrants, that Nigel Farage would have nothing to do with her.

She wants to leave to leave NATO, and to defy the European Union. It she were to win, she might shatter the so far for the most part united western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

So all those of us who want to keep Putin under united western pressure will hope that the opinion polls putting Macron in the lead are correct.

But the result of the French presidential election is not up to us. It is up to the French, who face a question which occurs all over Europe.

What is the future of the nation state? Is it to throw in its lot with a supra-national body, the European Union, even at the expense of national freedom?

Brexit was often written about as if it was a question only for those strange, old-fashioned people the British. Modern nations like France and Germany could not be susceptible to such out-of-date feelings.

But voters in France and Germany do, as it turns out, still have nationalist emotions, and even think those emotions have much to do with freedom and democracy.

The chances are that Macron will once again finesse this problem, and will beat Le Pen. But that does not mean the problem will go away.

What is the place of the nation state within the European Union? The traditional, Napoleonic answer of the French elite was that France’s role was to run the EU.

That is the answer of Macron, the brightest living representative of that elite. But will the French workers and peasants allow him, as the polls at present suggest, to get away with it? Or will they dare, in their bloody-mindedness, to vote for Le Pen, and support her vulgar and illiberal proposals to give immigrants fewer liberties?

One hesitates to ask such a tactless question. The likelihood is still that a majority of French voters will decide Macron is the lesser of two evils.

But even if they do, the question posed by Le Pen will not go away. Why the hell, she demands, should French voters be less free than the British?

Stephen Booth: The Ukraine war has revived American leadership and dashed dreams of European autonomy

7 Apr

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

In the 1990s, Mark Eyskens, then Belgium’s foreign minister, described the EU as an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm. This depiction has since been invoked in dozens of articles and speeches about EU foreign and security policy.

The unprecedented speed and scale of the EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine therefore displayed a surprising degree of unity and capacity to act, from what was admittedly a rather low base. The EU agreed to provide Ukraine with €450 million worth of weapons, and joined the US and the UK in imposing significant economic sanctions on the Russian financial system. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, described it as the EU’s “geopolitical awakening”.

Maintaining a unified EU response will be increasingly difficult as the crisis goes on and tougher decisions are called for. For example, this week, the EU agreed sanctions on Russian coal and shipping but was unable to extend this to oil, amid resistance from large energy importers such as Germany.

And while some in Brussels might hail the response as giving fresh impetus to the concepts of “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy”, in many ways the crisis has only underlined and intensified the EU’s reliance on the US and NATO.

The first references to the concept of EU “strategic autonomy” date back nearly a decadem but Emmanuel Macron has sought to put the idea at the heart of French and European foreign policy since assuming office. He first drew on this theme early in his presidency in a 2017 speech at the Sorbonne as a response to what he described as “gradual and inevitable disengagement by the United States”.

While pitched as a “complement” to NATO and the transatlantic alliance, Macron was clear that the concept meant equipping the EU with the tools to take decisions and action independently based on its own interests, from foreign and security policy to energy and technology. In 2019, Macron described the “brain death” of NATO.

The EU institutions in Brussels were keen to run with the theme. In 2019, the incoming Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, promised a “geopolitical Commission”. This promise was made in response to the decline in multilateralism and growing great power rivalry between the US and China. Brexit, and the loss of one of the EU’s two major foreign policy and security players, no doubt also acted as a catalyst for the renewed emphasis on developing the EU’s geopolitical role.

However, the EU has struggled to define what strategic autonomy means in practice. Economically, the French desire to create European champions clashes with the instincts of more liberal member states. Clément Beaune, France’s EU minister, said last month that the war should push the EU “to reduce our interdependence with the outside world, to create not an autocracy but a form of European independence.” Mark Rutte, Holland’s Prime Minister, has stressed the need for “open strategic autonomy”.

On security, there has been a renewed focus on increasing investment in defence capabilities, which has been accelerated by the Ukraine crisis, particularly dramatically in Germany. However, there had remained an unresolved tension between those states for whom strategic autonomy is a means of regaining political independence from Washington, and others for whom it should be avoided precisely for fear of accelerating US disengagement. The Ukraine crisis has strengthened the hand of those in the latter camp, including the Eastern and Nordic states.

Observers have noted that, on assuming the EU’s rotating presidency at the start of this year, Macron dropped the term “strategic autonomy” in favour of “European sovereignty”, precisely because the term autonomy risked becoming divisive.

The EU recently published its Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, which was supposed to be the centrepiece of the French EU presidency and a landmark signpost towards a more geopolitical EU. Based on the “first-ever comprehensive EU threat analysis”, conducted in 2020, it has been rather overtaken by events.

The Compass has been hastily updated to reflect the Ukraine war, but the major threat analysis was conducted before the Russian invasion changed the geopolitical landscape, and that threat analysis also did not anticipate the risk of Russian military action. Notably, US and UK intelligence warnings of an imminent Russian attack proved to be correct, whereas French and German agencies appeared unconvinced, leading to the departure of the head of French military intelligence.

One of the key proposals of the Strategic Compass is the development of an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity of up to 5,000 troops for different types of crises. However, the Ukraine crisis has only underlined that, for hard power, NATO is the only game in town. In the words of NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “so all these efforts – as long as they complement NATO – we welcome them, but the EU cannot defend Europe.”

The crisis has amplified the voices of the more Atlanticist member states, particularly in Eastern Europe. Estonia has called for a larger permanent presence of NATO forces on the eastern flank to act as a stronger deterrent. Romania has also called for more troops and has pledged to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, Poland has quietly lowered the temperature in its legal disputes with Brussels, giving it the opportunity to rekindle ties with the Biden Administration and urge the EU to do more on sanctions and support for Ukraine.

The US is also poised to play a significant role in the EU’s transition away from dependence on Russian energy. The US and the EU recently reached a deal to secure greater shipments of US liquified natural gas up to 2030 to help reduce energy dependence on Russian gas in the coming years. Von der Leyen noted that the target to import 50 billion cubic metres per year “is replacing one-third already of the Russian gas going to Europe today.”

If the horrors of the crisis in Ukraine have finally revealed the dangers and consequences of strategic ambiguity towards Putin’s Russia, European policies (in the EU and in the UK) towards China are also likely to come under increased scrutiny. During the recent EU-China summit, Xi Jinping reportedly called on the EU “to pursue an independent policy towards China,” in a thinly veiled warning to Brussels not to coordinate too closely with the US. But if China continues to support Russia, currently Europe’s gravest security threat, then greater proximity to Washington is the only likely answer.

This crisis has demonstrated the enduring power of the US. If this gives fresh momentum to Atlanticism within the EU and a greater focus on improving capabilities rather than stressing autonomy, this would be good for the West. It would also provide a more productive atmosphere for UK-EU cooperation on shared threats and challenges.

Alexander Gray: For all his naïveté towards Putin, the crisis in Ukraine has strengthened Macron

14 Mar

Alexander Gray is a Research Fellow at Policy Exchange.

It is often said that London is bought by Russian money – yet no major political figure on the British right has expressed pro-Russia or NATO-sceptic views since the current crisis began.

By contrast, leading French politicians have shown themselves to be more understanding of Russia’s position, and remain appreciably sceptical of NATO.

The French presidential election will be the first major electoral test since the invasion of Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the crisis has at times been uncertain, almost naïve, in his apparent belief that it offers an opportunity to present himself as the moving spirit in European diplomacy.

Nonetheless, it seems on the whole to be strengthening his position. Four weeks before the first round, he is well ahead of the other candidates, and his lead has expanded in the last month. He is currently polling at 29 per cent voting intentions in the first round. This is a respectable score in France’s two-round electoral system, and puts him well ahead of his closest rival, Marine Le Pen, currently on 16 per cent.

Crucially, Ukraine figures high on the list of issues people say will affect their vote. A poll published on 5 March reveals that 33 per cent say the war in Ukraine will affect their vote, second only to purchasing power on 52 per cent. Given the scope for energy price rises in the wake of the war in Ukraine, the two issues are linked.

This is not the first time that foreign affairs have had such an impact on a presidential race. Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the then-incumbent president and one thought by many to be a modernising conservative of his time, was widely criticised for undermining Western solidarity in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by holding a summit with Leonid Brezhnev in Warsaw in 1980. Francois Mitterrand’s attacks on d’Estaing over appeasement of the Soviets played a part in his subsequent victory in the 1981 election.

While Macron’s current popularity is partly due to ‘rallying round the flag’, (comparable to Francois Hollande’s 20-point surge following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris), he is also strengthened by the weakening of his rivals. Three of his four closest competitors (those with over ten per cent of voting intentions) are having to justify past pro-Putin comments.

Marine Le Pen, of the Rassemblement National, who has long-standing Kremlin links, is now trying to withdraw 1.2 million election pamphlets featuring her shaking hands with Putin. But this is complicated by her having until a very late stage consistently downplayed predictions of the invasion, which she said she “did not believe at all”.

Similarly Eric Zemmour (Reconquête), who has a history of praising Putin as a “patriot” and of supporting Russian allegations of NATO expansionism, now has to live down his comment in December that he was ready to “bet that Russia will not invade Ukraine”.

Though he has now condemned the “unjustifiable” invasion “without reservations”, he has added he hopes Ukrainian refugees do not come to France. This puts him at odds with most of the electorate – recent polls suggest 79 per cent, including even Marine Le Pen, are in favour of accepting Ukrainian refugees.

On the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise has described Russia as “not an enemy but a partner”. As recently as 20 February, he said French politicians “have a duty to ensure Ukraine does not enter NATO in the East”. Like the others, he has had to backtrack, saying Russia “takes responsibility for a terrible setback in history [which] creates the immediate danger of a generalised conflict that threatens all of humanity”.

Though his popularity had been rising, he will now have to face wider public scrutiny of his positions on international affairs.

Valerie Pécresse, the conservative (Les Républicains) candidate, has benefited less from this than might be expected. While Macron has been capturing the public attention, she has found it hard to differentiate her position from his without losing credibility by appearing either too hard- or too soft-line on Ukraine.

Even if Macron is seen internationally as too dovish on Russia, the historic complacency of many French politicians on the subject place him, nationally, at the more hawkish end of the spectrum. The combined voting intentions for Zemmour, le Pen and Mélenchon suggest that over 40 per cent of the electorate support candidates with questionable views on Russia and NATO (in contrast to Britai,  where both sides of the house stand firmly behind the Government’s robust approach on Ukraine).

So the reactions of Zemmour, Le Pen and Mélenchon to Scholz’s upending of German defence policy, though not yet clear, will provide a good indication of the likely future evolution of defence and political cooperation between France and Germany, its closest partner since 1945.

It is unclear whether Macron’s popularity will last until the election. But it seems improbable that any of the current crises, notably over Ukraine or energy prices, will deteriorate far or fast enough to unhorse him between now and then, even in those regions (such as the South-East and North-East) where he is weakest. So his present position is strong.

Stephen Booth: Does Germany’s pledge to rearm signal fundamental change – or is it a temporary reflex?

10 Mar

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

The horror of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been shocking in so many ways. Much about what happens next is uncertain, but the crisis is clearly a pivotal moment, which the West and its allies will be grappling with for many years to come. Vladimir Putin’s appalling actions have upended long-held assumptions about the geopolitics of Europe and are leading to radical and fundamental changes in policy, most starkly in Germany.

Germany has long been the EU’s economic powerhouse but, due in large part to its history, has eschewed a leadership role in European foreign and security policy, which have traditionally been roles for France and Britain. However, faced with the new reality, the new coalition government, headed by the centre-left SDP and supported by the Greens and the liberal FDP, is now embarking on a new course.

For weeks prior to the invasion, Berlin had maintained a longstanding policy of not delivering weapons to active conflict zones. Meanwhile, Olaf Scholz, the new Chancellor, had refused to say publicly if the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would be scrapped if Russia moved into Ukraine. This position was increasingly unsustainable, and the pipeline was eventually suspended in response to Putin moving his forces into Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

A week later, Scholz’s speech to a special session of the Bundestag was the most striking illustration of how the crisis is altering the strategic outlook. Annalena Baerbock, the Green Foreign Minister, described it as a “180-degree turn” in the country’s foreign policy.

Scholz announced that Germany will now “year after year” meet the NATO target of investing more than two per cent of GDP in defence (up from around 1.5 per cent now) and will create a one-off €100 billion fund to modernise its under-resourced military. He committed Germany to NATO’s nuclear sharing, pledging to upgrade its outdated Tornado jets, and reversed the government’s opposition to providing weapons to Ukraine.

On energy, Scholz pledged to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas, proposing new infrastructure to secure supply from other sources and providing economic support for consumers affected by the transition. There is however no plan to reverse the phase out of nuclear energy announced by Angela Merkel in 2011, which has prolonged German reliance on coal and Russian gas.

Nevertheless, the various policy announcements have overturned decades of German foreign policy and some fundamental tenets of the main political parties.

The SPD has been the party of “Ostpolitik” and has long seen engagement and interdependence with Russia as a key plank of German policy. The first gas pipeline between Germany and the then Soviet Union opened in 1973, under the then SPD Chancellor, Willy Brandt. Scholz also called on another former SPD Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to resign from his posts at Russian firms, dismissing the argument that he is now a private citizen, noting that a chancellor’s public service doesn’t end when he leaves office.

The Greens have accepted the pledge to increase capacity for coal and gas reserves and build new liquid natural gas terminals to accelerate the move away from Russian gas. The party’s former leader, Robert Habeck, first raised the prospect of providing Ukraine with defensive weapons in May 2021, but this was controversial with the rest of his party and the increase to defence spending is a major departure from the party’s pacifist roots. The fiscally conservative FDP have accepted the need to take on new debt to modernise the military.

Equally, Friedrich Merz, leader of the largest opposition party, the centre-right Christian Democrats, and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) came out with strong support for rearmament. This is significant, since investment foundered during the 16 years of CDU-led government under Angela Merkel. The breadth of cross-party support demonstrates the level of consensus behind this new direction.

These developments have been welcomed by Germany’s international partners, including the UK, who have long called on Berlin to shoulder a greater share of the security burden and re-evaluate its stance on Russia. Speaking to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee this week, Liz Truss said, “I want to praise Germany for their change in stand, because that will have a huge impact. I want to see others follow their lead.”

Delivering the new suite of German policies is certainly more easily said than done. For example, Scholz has so far resisted any EU embargo on Russian oil, judging this too risky a step, which only underlines the country’s dependence on Russian energy. The US and the UK, which announced embargos this week, are less reliant. The EU has instead announced a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds within a year.

Germany has been repeatedly criticised for free riding on others’ NATO commitments. The question is whether we are witnessing a temporary reflex to the current situation, or whether the political environment has fundamentally changed for the long-term. Just as Germany’s energy dependence on Russia cannot be reversed overnight, decades of drift into quasi-pacifism reflect a deeply embedded outlook. Will this moment mark a shift towards a new forward-leaning posture regarding security and the use of hard power as a deterrent?

But assuming it is a long-term commitment, the planned boost to German spending will make it the biggest defence spender in Europe. However reluctant it is to actively engage in geopolitics, this fact alone will matter by virtue of Germany’s size, history, and geographic position at the heart of the EU. A more assertive Berlin could potentially alter EU and wider European affairs significantly in the years to come.

Emmanuel Macron, who looks likely to be re-elected this spring, has been positioning France to take on the geopolitical leadership of Europe post-Brexit and post-Merkel. However, Scholz may yet become a more influential and decisive Chancellor than Merkel. Recent events will certainly have boosted the relationship between Berlin and Washington.

Macron’s bid for European leadership has centred on a push for EU “strategic autonomy”, but Germany, Eastern Europe, and the UK have been keener to emphasise NATO’s role in European security, which could suggest a stronger role for Atlanticism.

On the other hand, Germany is likely to be reluctant to lead from the front, and German governments have consistently sought to embed foreign policy in an integrated EU framework. The current coalition agreement proposes qualified majority voting for foreign and security policy, with a mechanism to reassure the smaller member states. If this moment marks the birth of a more geopolitical EU, its character and configuration remain up for grabs.

Meanwhile, the UK’s early role in providing military aid to Ukraine and its support for eastern NATO states has been welcomed by several EU members. Broadly, both UK and EU politicians have sought to emphasise how the crisis has demonstrated the need for and value of cooperation on fundamental issues of security and upholding democracy. Truss, along with her counterparts from the US, Canada, and Ukraine, attended the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council last week.

When pressed at the Foreign Affairs Committee, Truss refused to engage in speculation about whether new UK-EU structures in this area might be explored. However, she said, “We do need to re-look at European security architecture. It needs to be tougher, it needs to be stronger, there needs to be much stronger support on the Eastern flank.” The key part of the conversation is between the EU and NATO, she added.

For now the most pressing issue is the appalling unfolding humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, which is only likely to get worse as the violence grinds on. Meanwhile, the war’s wider economic impact will soon be felt by households across Europe in the form of higher energy prices and living costs, which will compound already high levels of inflation. Neighbouring countries will need assistance in coping with the humanitarian fall-out as increasing numbers of refugees flee the country.

However, the crisis is also likely to have profound implications for our European neighbourhood, which require careful consideration.

Gerry Lyons: What are the economic and policy implications of the war in Ukraine – and what do they mean for the UK?

8 Mar

Dr Gerard Lyons is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. He was Chief Economic Adviser to Boris Johnson during his second term as Mayor of London.

Russia is not an economic super-power. It is the world’s largest country by landmass. Its population is large, at 145 million, but is falling. Ahead of this crisis, it was the eleventh biggest economy in the world, while the UK is fifth. Russia’s income per head is low. Its military (defence) spending is similar in dollar terms to the UK’s, although higher in relation to the size of its economy. In addition to being a military power, with nuclear capabilities, Russia is a major commodity and energy producer.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Russia produced 10.72 million barrels per day (mbpd) of oil in 2021, second only to the US, at 16.39 mbpd. Russia produces more than Saudi Arabia, but exports less than her. Russia’s importance in terms of gas is even more significant, accounting for 45 per cent of the EU’s gas imports and 40 per cent of its consumption last year.

The most significant economic impact of the war will be contagion through higher energy prices. Ahead of the conflict, gas prices were already elevated and oil prices had been trending higher. War adds a risk premium into the prices of both.

Other commodity prices are already higher, particularly wheat, given Ukraine’s importance as a wheat producer. In 2019, I gave the keynote speech at the annual Ukrainian Financial Forum in Kiev, and it was noteworthy then how the economy was reforming, with a range of key exports including metals, minerals, agricultural products, a shift into digital exports, and also that roughly two-thirds of its public debt was foreign-owned. It is depressing that this move towards openness has been stopped in its tracks.

For many countries – including the UK – this rise in energy and food prices is occurring in an environment of rising inflation, not helped by lax monetary policy last year. Now, UK inflation will peak higher, possibly breaching 10 per cent, and persist for far longer, casting light on how low the Bank of England’s policy rate of 0.5 per cent is.

Financial markets are selling off sharply. This both reflects uncertainty about where the war might lead militarily and concern about future growth.

While high energy prices add to inflation, they also sharply squeeze peoples’ disposal incomes and add to firms’ costs. Also, while higher interest rates may be needed to curb inflation, these may slow the world economy later this year and early next. Recession is even possible for the UK.

Financial markets have repriced the outlook for interest rates: the direction has not changed, but the pace and scale of expected tightening has. Markets now see rates rising less rapidly than previously expected.

Another impact from the war is via sanctions. The scale of sanctions will see a deep recession in Russia. As Russia’s military spending is fiscally led, this may dampen its ability to spend more in this area. But there is little historical evidence of economic sanctions halting an aggressor’s military plans.

How will these sanctions impact the UK? Russia is the UK’s nineteenth largest trading partner with total annual bilateral trade of £15.9 billion. Russia is our 26th biggest export market and 15th in countries we import from.

Russia as an export market for luxury goods will be closed. Annual UK exports are £4.3 billion: cars being the largest item at £386 million, medicines and pharmaceuticals £272 million and capital machinery £199 million. Annual imports are £11.6 billion, with the largest items being: oil £3.6 billion, non-ferrous metals £1.3 billion, and gas £559 million, plus a vast array of other goods.

There will be an impact on financial flows. The UK has invested heavily in Russia and many firms may have to write-off these investments. By 2020, the stock of UK direct investment into Russia was £11.2 billion. By contrast, total foreign direct investment from Russia into the UK was £681 million. Although this is only 0.7 per cent of the total stock it may understate the Russian influence. The phrase “Londongrad” has been attributed to the City since the introduction of the golden visa in 2008 and the continuation of Russian involvement ever since.

This is an association we should seek to ditch – while bearing in mind the importance to differentiate between Russia and the Putin regime. Being open, transparent, non-discriminatory, not retrospective, and abiding by the supremacy of English Common Law are important in ensuring there are no unintended consequences from actions we take now. That is, we should punish the Putin regime whilst enhancing the reputation of the City.

In terms of wider financial flows, the UK financial sector does not appear heavily exposed to Russia. The Bank for International Settlements shows total international bank lending to Russia of $121.5 billion, of which the largest was $25.3 billion from Italy, $25.2 billion from France and $17.5 billion from Italy. The UK’s exposure was $3 billion, so relatively low.

The exclusion of Russia from international capital markets should have a profound impact on its economy. London’s role as a global financial centre should not be impacted.

A critical component of the sanctions was to cut many Russian banks off from the west’s global payments system: SWIFT. The impact of this, however, was slightly diluted because of Western Europe’s dependency upon Russian gas and the need to still be able to pay for this; hence some Russian banks are still able to access the system.

Critically, though, a key decision was taken to exclude the Russian central bank and thus limit its ability to access the large amount of foreign exchange reserves it had accumulated, over previous years, the bulk of which are housed in central banks outside Russia. This measure, like crossing the Rubicon, could have profound longer-term consequences. There is little doubt it adds to the financial and economic pressure on Russia.

It could accelerate the move towards a global currency system not dominated by the dollar and a payments system not dominated by the west. China, in particular, is keen for an alternative to the dollar dominated system. Also, Russia and China have both developed their own versions of SWIFT in recent years. Furthermore, we are already in an environment where, regardless of this war or wider geopolitical issues, there is a race underway across countries to develop new global central bank digital currencies.

Another aspect is global defence spending. The war strengthens the case for increased military spending, illustrated most vividly by Germany’s announcement it will increase defence spending to NATO’s target of two per cent expenditure of GDP. The UK already achieves this target, but may yet decide to boost defence spending further. The war also shows the importance of soft power and controlling the narrative, with the BBC being an important tool internationally in tackling disinformation from Russia

Many countries will be impacted by the humanitarian fall-out. The recent UN World Migration Report noted that there are 281 million international migrants. This represents an increase of, on average, six million per year globally over the last decade. Thus, if as some fear, there are five million migrants from Ukraine (population 44 million) it would be huge.

The war, plus sanctions, will trigger an implosion in both the Russian and Ukrainian economies. There will, however, be significant contagion too, via higher energy prices. The UK will witness higher inflation now and an economic slowdown – and possible recession – over the next year.

Ranj Alaadin: The Ukraine crisis. Brexit Britain is proving itself an international force. Here’s what we should do next.

21 Feb

Ranj Alaaldin is the Director of Crisis Response Council, a UK and US based international affairs organisation, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

British foreign policy is in the midst of a honeymoon period. Post-Brexit Britain is defining itself on the international stage, thanks to its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and the resettlement in the UK of tens of thousands of Hongkongers fleeing China’s repressive rule.

Irrespective now of whether a Russian invasion of Ukraine materialises, Britain’s valiant effort to push back against Russia’s aggression has exemplified resolve, conviction and moral authority, allowing the British flag to emerge as a beacon of freedom and democracy in a matter of just months.

When the Integrated Review was published last year, its critics rejected it as a pipe dream, premised on the notion that Britain could not be a “soft power superpower” outside of the European Union, but our approach to Ukraine has highlighted an ability to balance our soft power tools with our hard power capabilities: the dispatching of weapons to Ukraine and the mobilisation of our allies might just de-escalate tensions, and one could argue that our muscular approach has forced Europe to get its act together, potentially paving the way for the Russians to contemplate a diplomatic resolution that may have previously been unfathomable.

The same critics of the report who predicted Brexit would lead to a Britain less relevant in global affairs are also currently disparaging the Government for spearheading the global pushback against Russia. Opponents of Brexit warned that the withdrawal from the EU would diminish the country’s capacity to shape the contours of international affairs, but the logic of that argument meant that less Europe would mean more responsibility.

The Government has, therefore, rightly adopted a proactive and assertive foreign policy that allows Britain to be both global power and global broker to work closely with like-minded nations to address common threats.

Our approach to Ukraine should continue to set the tone for British foreign policy moving forward, namely by deploying the country’s reputational assets and global reach to address ongoing and future threats, and to mobilise our allies into action in increasingly complex and multi-layered challenges to international security. The shape and nature of long-standing and evolving security threats, which at times inter-connect, requires a re-calibration of how we combat them.

Firstly, coercive diplomacy, like that which we have undertaken with the Russians, constitutes a strategy designed to make an enemy stop or undo an action, either with or without resorting to military action. What is essential is ensuring the threat of force is credible enough to compel adversaries to comply with the coercing party’s demands.

The Government, along with its allies, has demonstrated a resolution and willingness to escalate the dispute militarily, thereby producing escalatory steps that can be either advanced or reversed depending on how the target country, Russia, responds. This differs from the conventional use of force in situations where diplomacy may be on the margins or discarded altogether and where the use of force is designed to be decisive and at times overwhelming to achieve military objectives.

In this instance, Britain’s approach has set the bar and paved the way for the likes of the Americans to step-up and assume more responsibility for a collective response to Moscow, while increasing the pressure and inducing action on the part of the Europeans, including the French and the Germans.

Second, the Ukraine crisis notwithstanding, inter-state wars are rare but proxy wars, civil-wars and hybrid warfare are on the increase, which requires re-calibrating policies to account for the reality of warfare today. Conflicts come and go but the resulting calm is often deceptive: of the countries that have suffered a civil war since 1945, more than half experienced a relapse into violent conflict – in some cases more than once – after peace had been established. These are the conflicts that inflict long-term damage to the fabric of societies and produce refugee crises that have far-reaching cross-border implications.

Re-calibrating policies to account for the reality of conflict and warfare today could not be more urgent: a paper by Stanford University concludes that droughts, floods, natural disasters and other climatic shifts have influenced between three per cent and 20 per cent of armed conflicts over the last century. One in four intrastate conflicts will result from changing climate, according to the paper.

Hybrid warfare will continue to test the rules based international order: such countries as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea will deploy and become increasingly effective at harnessing cyber and information operations to undermine the West’s interests and values. This year will see at least ten elections of note across the globe – arenas where malign state and non-state actors will look to subvert and manipulate electoral outcomes, undermine democracy and circumvent the true will of indigenous populations.

Britain should lead the push for an international framework that establishes the guiding principles for combating cyberwarfare. Its purpose would be to enable investment in cybersecurity and cyber resiliency, and to establish a framework that is similar to the 2006 commitment from NATO countries to commit a minimum of two per cent of their GDP to defence spending. Cybersecurity is underfunded, but our private and public sectors are increasingly exposed to sophisticated attacks designed to wreak havoc on our lives and national infrastructure.

Finally, to prevent and address conflicts that produce the breeding grounds for terrorists and their state sponsors, that enable the ascension of malign state and non-state actors, and that produce humanitarian and refugee crises, the government should establish a conflict-mediation unit within Downing Street, a team of dedicated experts whose sole mandate would be to empower the ability of Number 10 to navigate the tricky waters of conflict mediation. This could provide a valuable adjuvant to the work of the Foreign Office, which more often than not is ill-equipped to undertake agile and creative mediation and negotiation strategies that constitute tradecraft in their own right.

Such a unit would continue to build on the momentum that has been generated from the Ukraine crisis, a legacy builder that empowers Number 10 with sense of direction and purpose, and that allows Global Britain to stay true to its convictions and ideals as it moves to establish the country’s post-Brexit identity on the global stage.

David Davis: The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Our history is a lot more nuanced than many would have you believe.

17 Feb

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

This week, David Lammy, wrote to the Government asking for a pardon of 70 slave rebel leaders involved in the 1823 Demerara rebellion.

Lammy is right and his call is a sensible one. As he highlights, these were some of the pioneers of the continuing abolition movement. And their actions helped pave the way for the final abolition of slavery in the British Empire 10 years later.

But our history with slavery is a lot more nuanced than many would have you believe. And when matters such as this are raised, it is important we take a closer look at our real history.

Undoubtedly, Britain played a terrible part in the 17th and 18th-century history of slavery. Millions of human souls were captured and traded. Hundreds of thousands died in the terrible Atlantic crossing, and hundreds of thousands more died in the cruel and oppressive conditions when they arrived in the Caribbean and the Americas. It was an evil trade.

Britain was not alone in this evil pursuit. Every European nation with a maritime presence took part, as well as several African kingdoms that sold human beings to the European slavers. Spain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands were particularly prominent. That does not exonerate Britain from its guilt in this matter. As the biggest maritime power, we were the second biggest offender.

But Britain did something that nobody else did, something that was astonishing in its motivation and in its eventually dramatic effect.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act on March 25, 1807 was, perhaps, the most under underappreciated moment in our history. This was the first legislative step by Parliament to abolish slavery and the first major success of the abolitionist movement.

The Act was both the ending of a decades-long struggle and the beginning of a sweeping political and societal change.

Its passage was the celebrated achievement of the leadership of inspirational figures such as Ignatius Sancho (the first African in Britain to receive an obituary), Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson, and of course, William Wilberforce. But it also recognised the almost 400,000 people who had signed petitions calling for change.

At the end of February the book Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams – the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago – will be published in the UK for the first time.

In it Williams asserts that not only was Britain’s role in the slave trade driven by wealth creation, so too was our role in its abolition. As it happens I think that this argument is nonsense. The Clapham sect, who drove the demand for reform, were driven by religious and moral fervor on slavery and on other social reforms. The 400,000 petitioners were not petitioning for profit. The brave sailors who volunteered for dangerous service to defeat the trade were hardly driven by a the interests of the capitalists of the day. Indeed they were sued by them!

Abolition is a landmark moment in our history. It transformed the world.

For thousands of years, humanity had been characterised by the enslavement of one people by another. Over 550 years ago, Europeans began the transatlantic slave trade.

While Britain was not the worst practitioner of this evil, we must acknowledge our part; we can no more re-write history than those who tear down statues. Over the course of 150 years, British ships purchased an estimated three-and-a-half million Africans. Almost three million survived the “middle passage” and were sold into slavery in the Americas.

But as British society developed amid the Enlightenment, more people thought slavery was anathema to modern understandings of liberty.

Change was needed.

Under the leadership of Wilberforce and others, in 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act passed by a massive majority of 283 votes to 16.

This was a monumental moment that realised the triumph of political will and mass protest. And in what Britain did next, it spawned a heroic moral endeavour that has never been matched.

Today’s critics conveniently forget this in their version of history.

The cost to Britain in abolishing the slave trade was huge.

Prior to the Act, British ships had carried 52 per cent of all transported slaves, and British colonies – dependent on slave labour – produced 55 per cent of the world’s sugar. Britain conducted more trade with the West Indies than anywhere else.

After abolition, British sugar production fell by 25 per cent, while rival economies more than doubled. In global terms, Britain’s share fell from 55 per cent in 1805 to 15 per cent by 1850. This cost Britain two per cent of GDP annually from 1808 to 1867.

This was a massive financial cost. The British Parliament knew this, and yet they persisted regardless – because it was the right thing to do.

It was the most costly overseas ethical intervention in history. We should be very proud of it.

And yet, Williams claimed, in his book in 1938, that slavery was abolished in much of the empire out of economic self-interest and not as a result of extensive campaigning over the course of decades.

Whilst the role of Britain in the slave trade is well known, the role of the Royal Navy in correcting that injustice is barely mentioned in the discussion of our legacy.

Founded in 1808, the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy had the singular purpose of stopping transatlantic slave ships. For over 60 years, the force patrolled international waters, captured 1,600 slaver ships and rescued 150,000 slaves.

It was the first chapter in the British Navy’s history against the international slave trade. It was an astonishing tale of derring-do and heroism, of great deeds done solely for the purpose of destroying a great evil.

It was done at great personal cost to many of the sailors involved. The death rate from action and disease was the highest in the Navy, at about six per cent per annum. Two hundred men died from disease in 1829 alone.

It was an astonishing period, with the ongoing battle between the Royal Navy and the slave traders marked by an arms race between frigates and fast clippers, and then paddle steamers. There were stories of prolonged pursuits and sea fights, of rescues of slaves thrown overboard, and of individual heroism worthy of Nelson’s successors.

Naval officers and seamen returned year after year to the fight, risking death from yellow fever, malaria, hepatitis, and the violence of battles with everybody from slaver ships to the soldiers of the African slaver kingdoms.

Because their own ships were not fast enough to catch the Baltimore clippers, naval captains sometimes bought captured slave boats with their own money and converted them for action. The most famous of these was the clipper Henriquetta, captured, bought, and renamed the Black Joke. Armed with a single 18 pounder and five marines, time after time she captured slave ships and pirates that outran the conventional naval vessels. All told she captured at least ten ships, including a 14 gun slaving vessel that was twice her size, after a 31 hour chase and battle.

Naval captains used their military power to destroy the “slave factories” along the African coast, sometimes with the prior approval of the British government, sometimes not. One of them ended up facing a law suit brought by slaver interests in the London courts for these actions. But the battle went on.

Often it seemed like a futile and hopeless contest, rather similar to today’s “war on drugs”, with almost no hope of success. But neither the Navy, nor successive British governments of all colours, ever gave up

The West Africa Squadron’s task was made more important because other colonial powers continued their slave trade. France permitted slave trading until 1826 and Portugal continued to trade slaves with Brazil until 1851. The British government used the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, financial pressures and treaties to coerce other European powers to give up part or all of their slave trading activities.

The relentless work of the squadron peaked in the mid-19th century. And eventually it succeeded, with the Atlantic slave trade being stamped out in 1867.

This does not absolve Britain of our role in a global tragedy, but it provides a broader lens with which to view history. It was a unique action that our country, and only our country, can be proud of.

The idea that Wilberforce et al pioneered abolition out of a desire to enhance Britain’s economic position only does them, and the hundreds of thousands of fellow campaigners a disservice. Abolitionists were not popular. Careers were put on the line in the passing of the Act, not to mention the lives of thousands of sailors that were laid down enacting it.

Today, we are at serious risk of distorting history beyond all recognition. This is the real risk of the saga of the Colston statue in Bristol.

But instead of tearing down our history, we need a proper, reasoned and mature debate about it and the legacy it imparts on our society.

As it stands, that is impossible with those who violently tear down statues and seek to dismiss opponents through character assassination.

There are some who believe that our history is a litany of abuses – that is nonsense. Our history has its dark times, but in the round it is a long one, full of episodes of high principle, creativity, bravery, and genius.

Of course, we have a duty to teach the full history of our country – the peaks and the troughs.

But we are doing our children a disservice by not celebrating that which we should rightly be proud of. We need to inspire our children with principled heroes such as Equiano and Wilberforce, Sancho and Clarkson, and heroic naval commanders like Collier and Denman.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 was a transformational moment in British history and it changed the history of the world for the better, for ever.

That is worth remembering, regardless of what others may say. Perhaps the proper response to the Colston statue episode is to make March 25, the anniversary of the Abolition Act, an annual holiday: Anti Slavery Day, perhaps. That date can also serve as a celebration of the pardoning of leading abolitionists.

And while we are at it, why not replace the statues of Colston and his like with statues of the heroic naval captains whose courage helped bring slavery to an end across much of the globe.

Johnson must not play into Putin’s hands by driving the Germans into his arms

28 Jan

Vladimir Putin knows Germany well. He served as a KGB officer in Dresden from 1985, witnessed the sudden collapse of the East German regime in 1989, and later described destroying the office files:

“I personally burned a huge amount of material. We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst.”

After persuading a group of demonstrators not to storm the KGB headquarters in Dresden – he warned them his comrades were ready to shoot – Putin telephoned a local Red Army tank unit to ask for help.

“We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the voice at the other end of the line said. “And Moscow is silent.”

Moscow today is not silent, and one of Putin’s aims in the present crisis is to drive an ever deeper wedge into NATO, so the Germans and French become detached from the Americans and British.

Who in the British Cabinet has anything like Putin’s knowledge of Germany? Or indeed of Russia?

In 1974, the year before Putin joined the KGB, Matthias Warnig joined the Stasi, the East German secret police. He and Putin are said to have worked together in the late 1980s, recruiting West Germans to the KGB, but they undoubtedly got to know each other in 1991, when Putin was head of External Relations for the Mayor of Saint Petersburg and Warnig chaired the Russian subsidiary of Dresdner Bank, which was opening an office in that city.

In 2006, Warnig became Managing Director of Nord Stream AG, set up to pipe gas through the Baltic to Germany, and since 2015 he has served as Chief Executive Officer of Nord Stream 2 AG, which is owned by Gazprom, the huge Russian state gas company.

Warnig studied “National Economy” in East Berlin and in 2012 was awarded the Order of Honour of the Russian Federation.

Nordstream’s board is chaired by Gerhard Schröder, who took the post in 2005 just after stepping down as German Chancellor. There are also four Gazprom directors.

This is a serious, long-term relationship, backed at the highest level in both Russia and Germany. The Americans and the Ukrainians have protested in vain.

Schröder decided in 2002 to phase out nuclear power in Germany. When Angela Merkel succeeded him as Chancellor, she said she would extend the life of Germany’s nuclear power stations, but after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, she changed her mind and announced that the stations would be closed in 2022.

Fukushima was caused by a tidal wave: not a problem in Germany. Merkel wanted to steal the Greens’ thunder, but her decision also made Germany more dependent on Russian gas.

For the Germans, the idea of another war with Russia is unthinkable. The last one was so hellish that “never again” is the prevailing view.

Putin knows this, but the thought is less likely to be at the forefront of British ministers’ minds.

The head of the German navy had to resign the other day, after making some artlessly pro-Putin remarks at a conference in New Delhi.

He said Russia is a Christian power which we need on our side against China, and it would cost us nothing to show Putin some respect. To him, these remarks were glimpses of the obvious, because the people round him say the same.

Yesterday morning I rang my friend Tilman Fichter in Berlin, comrade of Rudi Dutschke, Willy Brandt and Peter Glotz, a man sympathetic to the British and the Americans, but with an insight into the tides of German and European history. He said:

“The Americans must be very careful. If Germany had to choose between staying in NATO and going to war with Russia, a majority of Germans would say we should leave NATO at least for the next year.”

Repress any momentary feeling of irritation you may feel at hearing of this desire to opt out of the obligations of NATO membership. It is easy for Boris Johnson to sound a gung-ho note about Ukraine.

It is impossible for Germany’s leaders to do so. By being so hesitant about extending any kind of help to Ukraine, they are reflecting rather than defying public opinion.

Every German family lost a father, a brother, a husband in Russia. In Russia it is the same. These are two nations joined in a colossal suffering. As Fichter said:

“There is no chance that Germany would voluntarily take part in a campaign against the Russians. This is really the spirit of the people here.”

He pointed out that the Russians left Germany and made re-unification possible. Mikhail Gorbachev is remembered with gratitude by the Germans for not telling the tanks in Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden to leave barracks and attack the German people in 1989. This wasn’t 1953, 1956 or 1968. What a deliverance.

To British eyes, the “Normandy format” – the talks now promoted by Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, in order to arrive at a negotiated settlement of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine – may seem like so much window-dressing.

But NATO – in the words of a Briton, Lord Ismay, who served as its first Secretary-General – was founded “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” – and that can’t any more be its purpose as far as the Germans are concerned.

Let us not now play into Putin’s hands by driving the Germans into his arms.

Ryan Bourne: A government that wants to Build Back Better must address supply-side constraints on the economy

26 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Well, so long, “Plan B.” In jettisoning some of the most intrusive remaining Covid-19 restrictions, England (with the home nations to follow) could soon rival parts of the U.S. in being the most “normalised” policy environments in the developed world. Yes, mandatory self-isolation for those testing positive will remain, for now. But as with the vaccine rollout, Britain appears now to be leading the world into the new approach of “learning to live with the virus.”

This will bring with it an economic fillip, albeit disrupted in near-term statistics by Omicron. We have certainly been in need of one. Though headline GDP figures across countries can be misleading about the impact of the pandemic given measurement differences, an analysis by The Economist combining five indicators – GDP, household income per person, share prices, investment, and public debt – found that through September last year Britain had been the second most adversely affected major economy from the pandemic, behind only Spain.

In its ranking of 23 OECD countries, Britain was deemed third worst for the fall in household income (behind Austria and Spain), third worst for the decline in share prices (behind Chile and Spain), worst for the fall in investment, and second worst (behind Spain) for the public debt surge. With Covid-19 deaths per capita here relatively high – above all other major European or G7 economies except for the U.S., Belgium and Italy – we suffered a pandemic double-whammy of both poor health outcomes and a big economic hit.

Does analysing the change in these variables mislead about how the UK shapes up internationally after Covid? Perhaps. It’s not as if the public health crisis was the only thing happening during this time. And it’s important to remember that looking at changes to economic variables in the pandemic can hide that Britain entered it with significant structural strengths too.

In mid-2019, The FT’s Chris Giles was able to write that incoming Chancellor Sajid Javid enjoyed unemployment at its lowest rate since 1974, with the share of 16- to 64-year-olds in work at close to record levels, inflation bang on target, average earnings growing at their highest rate for 11 years, and public borrowing modest. The biggest ongoing economic weakness then was clearly productivity – with GDP per hour worked around 15 per cent lower than seen in France or the U.S., after a decade of weak economic growth.

So the UK entered the crisis with many macroeconomic variables healthy. Even the shock of the pandemic has therefore left the country’s headline statistics looking largely unremarkable in comparison with other economies.

UK unemployment is still low by international standards, for example. At 4.1 per cent for September through December 2021, the UK’s rate was similar to the U.S., and bettered only by Japan (2.8 per cent) and Germany (3.2 per cent) within the G7. The employment rate for 16-64 year olds of 75.5 per cent, although still 1.1 percentage points below its pre-crisis peak, is similarly only exceeded by the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the Netherlands within Europe and then Japan too in the G7.

Pandemic-induced disruption and rising energy prices (on the supply-side) and huge macroeconomic stimulus (on the demand-side) has left us worried about inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. But, again, this is not an affliction unique to Britain, belying the idea it is mainly caused by Brexit. At 5.4 per cent in the 12 months to December, consumer price index inflation was almost identical to EU-wide inflation (5.3 per cent), and lower than some countries within it, such as Germany. Compared to G7 countries, the UK was decisively average too, with only Japan and France with significantly lower rates.

On GDP, it’s true that – putting measurement differences aside – the UK had one of the biggest headline falls in output during the pandemic. GDP in Q3 2021 was still 1.5 per cent below the pre-crisis peak, with only Japan having suffered a worse performance among G7 countries. But the OECD expects faster UK growth going forwards. And as economist Julian Jessop has noted, it’s highly likely that the UK will be doing better than the eurozone in terms of GDP relative to its pre-crisis peak through 2022, although still lagging far behind the U.S.

What about the public finances? Well, up to September 2021, the IMF had calculated that the UK had the third biggest total Covid-19 fiscal support package, amounting to a massive 19.3 per cent of GDP, and so behind only New Zealand and the United States. It’s therefore no surprise that public net debt has surged to new highs in peacetime. And yet, within the G7, the only country with a gross debt-to-GDP level lower than the UK is Germany and the UK is slap bang in the middle of the seven for its projected primary budget deficit this year.

The after-shocks associated with Covid-19 might be felt for years to come, through disruption to demand patterns, experiments with more home working, a spatial reallocation of activity and lingering effects on attitudes to risk. But the UK’s broad macroeconomic situation is not dissimilar to that of many other comparable countries. And that should make us ponder a few lessons from elsewhere as we tackle the immediate challenges we face.

In particular, the country that has stood out in suffering a worse inflation problem than the UK is the U.S. – where households were showered with cash such that the government effectively delivered a money drop to households. So why the guys at the Social Market Foundation appear to be urging the Chancellor to introduce a £500 “Rishi Cost of Living Allowance” as if that’s a cure to inflation here is beyond me.

Unemployment spiked very high and then plummeted in the U.S. below all G7 countries bar Germany and Japan – showing the long-term virtues of flexible labour markets. If Britain wants to regain its full, robust employment performance of 2019, it should beware new policies prioritising worker “security” over continuing a liberal hiring and firing environment as things normalise.

But, most of all, the UK’s key economic challenge – weak growth – remains and becomes even more pertinent given Covid-19-induced constraints. The pandemic has tested to destruction the idea that macroeconomic problems can be solved by throwing more and more stimulus and “demand” at things. If the Government is serious about “Building Back Better”, it needs to do the hard yards in thinking about the supply-side constraints on the economy and how to turn more demand into real growth, rather than rising prices.

Imran Mulla: Religious freedom – and why French assimilation fails while British multiculturalism works

10 Jan

Imran Mulla is a student of history at Jesus College, Cambridge. He lives in Leicester.

Éric Zemmour, the most controversial candidate for the French presidency, believes that France is veering towards civil war.

The reason? Its growing Muslim population, too distinctive from the white majority for comfort. “Our elites have made the mistake, for the last 30 or 40 years,” Zemmour proclaimed in a recent interview with UnHerd, “of adopting the British method, which consists of excessive respect for the culture of origin, trying to allow different cultures to coexist side by side”. He paused, before adding pointedly, ‘I am against that.’

Zemmour’s polemic bears little resemblance to reality; France has never had anything like British multiculturalism. The French government refuses to so much as collect data based on religion, whereas here the word ‘multiculturalism’ denotes our politicians speaking of ‘communities’, visiting minority community centres and places of worship, and ritually giving well-wishes on different religious festivals.

It represents a heterogeneity unimaginable in France, where religion is forced out of the public sphere – thus French schoolgirls are unable to wear the headscarf, the Interior Minister is aghast at the spectacle of halal meat in supermarkets, and Muslim women are banned from covering their faces for religious reasons (though not for fear of the Coronavirus). The French have quite obviously not imitated the British method.

Accuracy aside, though, Zemmour’s point was that France has thus far been too permissive in its attitude to Muslim immigrants and French Muslim citizens. He believes that the growing tradition of Islam must be privatised, de-politicised and modernised – just as other religions have been.

His position is rooted in the legacy of the French Revolution, which was animated by an anti-clerical fervour that saw the forceful subjugation of the Catholic clergy and a requirement for French Jews to renounce the mosaic law. A century later, the Law of 1905 established laïcité by decisively separating church from state.

But France’s colonial exploits in Africa encouraged the migration of colonised Muslims to the metropole – France is now home to a significant Muslim minority. Zemmour, himself a descendant of Algerian Jews, celebrates France’s colonial history, yet exploits fears over its legacy: ethnic and religious diversity in France.

French elites have concealed the ‘reality of our replacement’, he declares ominously in his campaign announcement address, echoing the conspiracy theory of the esoteric fascist, Renaud Camus.

So, what is to be done? Firstly, Zemmour believes, immigration must be halted – but he also wishes to “re-establish French-style assimilation”: immigrants must be forced to “appropriate French history, customs, habits and traditions” (although the French in North Africa made no effort even at integration, let alone assimilation).

We in Britain should respond to Zemmour’s attack on British multiculturalism by standing up for ourselves; we have handled diversity far better than our neighbour.

For one thing, Britain’s secularism lacks the aversion to visible religion that defines French laïcité. Anglicanism is our state religion, the Queen is head of the Church, and all state schools are required to hold an act of communal worship everyday. Britain’s Christian heritage is embedded into our political system; this is largely why we have responded with far less hysteria than France to the growth of new religious communities on our shores.

Many British conservatives, of course, see multiculturalism as having eroded a sense of national identity. But the picture is more complicated than that. Consider the elderly white man in Bradford or Leicester who bemoans the fact that he does not recognise his neighbours, that the music on the radio is American, that his grandchildren hold values entirely different from his own, and that the local church is being used as a mosque.

He is reacting to globalisation, social atomisation, the decline of Christianity, and a host of other symptoms of ‘liquid modernity’. These are not the fault of immigrants or their descendants. That this country is ethnically and religiously diverse is fitting considering our history: Britain first became multicultural when it formed an empire, and today most British non-whites trace their ancestry to the colonies. Our first significant Muslim communities were formed from the arrival in the 1950s and ‘60s of migrants from former British India, encouraged to migrate by the British government.

Nor has our multiculturalism been any sort of disaster; Muslims here identify even more strongly with Britain than the population at large, and there is a positive correlation between British identification and higher religiosity. Islamic faith schools top the national charts in performance, with Muslim girls usually achieving higher than boys. Religious segregation, meanwhile, has consistently been declining, and Muslims are more likely than Brits in general to live in ethnically mixed areas.

Myths abound about Muslims, but these are generally false: ‘no-go zones’ for non-Muslims are non-existent, despite being believed in by almost half of Conservative Party members. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, Muslim and Pakistani-heritage men have no disproportionate presence in grooming gangs, as a two-year Home Office study concluded.

Nor does Muslim terrorism reflect a general problem with Muslims any more than far-right terrorism reflects a problem with white people (London’s Muslims, for example, are even less likely than the population at large to condone violence against civilians).

Integration, overall, is proceeding smoothly; the culture found among, say, Birmingham’s Pakistani-origin Muslim youth has little in common with youth culture in Pakistan.

The most self-segregating people in British society are the wealthiest. They move in their own social circles and maintain elite private schools such as Eton – culturally, they are removed from much of the country. But we do not attempt to suppress their way of life in the name of egalitarianism (although some activists would have us try), because to do so would be authoritarian. Britishness, traditionally understood, has always been a broad umbrella.

This is not to say that there are no problems with multiculturalism – there are, and this should be considered in light of the fact that half of British Muslims live in poverty. There is also pervasive discrimination: Muslims face significant penalties in the labour market (as evidenced by all the available data) and are singled out for digital strip searches at the airport.

But, overall, British multiculturalism has been a relative success. This is the irony of Zemmour’s rhetoric: the French situation, by contrast, is disastrous. While Muslims here feel comfortably British in the understanding that Britishness allows for the expression of different religious values and the intermingling of cultural practices, French Muslims are trapped in a zero-sum game: they must conceal their religious convictions to be respectable citizens.

But Zemmour’s comparison of the two countries should encourage us Brits to look in the mirror. We face an attack on our traditional multiculturalism from our own government, which is currently promoting a ‘muscular liberalism’ compelling people to either accept ‘British’ (read: liberal) values or be labelled an extremist.

This un-British attempt to coerce fealty to an ideology represents a departure from Lockean liberalism and multiculturalism. Religious liberty is being eroded – we now face the possibility of the Prevent ‘counter-extremism’ programme, which has proved extraordinarily ineffective at combating violence while targeting expressions of Islamic practice and suppressing Muslim free speech, being extended into the private sphere.

Religious institutions may be compelled to report people suspected of ‘extremism’ (defined by the government as vocal or active opposition to British values) to the authorities. This would mean the wholesale securitisation of religion – something one would expect to see in France, but not Britain. Old-fashioned multiculturalism might be messy and flawed, but it is less authoritarian than the assimilationist model currently being ramped up.

The spectacle of French politics, where every significant presidential candidate has an assimilationist stance towards French Muslims, should encourage us to assert ourselves in support of the British multiculturalism which Zemmour disdains and which is currently being threatened. We are not like France, and it should stay that way. Will Britain really be enriched by replacing multiculturalism in all its vibrancy and complexity with a secular monoculture?

This is Zemmour’s aim for the French – and the closer you look, the more incoherent his vision appears. France is ‘the country of the Notre Dame,’ he declares bombastically in his campaign announcement video, not considering the irony that the Virgin Mary, whose image adorns the cathedral’s stained-glass windows, would today be unable to step foot inside a French school; headscarves are banned. Zemmour also adulates the French Revolution’s legacy of liberté, but there is an obvious contradiction here: ‘freeing’ French Muslims from their religion requires extreme coercion, from deploying immensely authoritarian surveillance methods to banning women from putting on too many clothes.

Zemmour is right about one thing: the situation in France is certainly tragic. We in Britain should be thankful for what we have, and wary of allowing it to be lost.