Jeremy Black: This crisis will require a Prime Minister able to devote sustained attention

1 Mar

Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

Real people fear, suffer and die. That is the nature of war. Conflict is also intensely political, not just because war is waged in order to enforce policies and determine decisions, but also because observers recalibrate their world, its hopes, fears, opportunities and nightmares. What yesterday appeared of great consequence is rendered redundant and new contexts provide the basis for judgment.

The Ukraine conflict will not end las the Falklands invasion did with the fall of the aggressive government and a situation that can be readily policed. Instead, whatever the short-term outcome and resulting position, this situation will fester, which will pose major challenges for statecraft, and for the stability both of Ukraine and of surrounding areas.

Russia has taken on a huge task, one that ultimately depends on installing a pliant government. Ukraine (233,031 square miles) compares to such previous areas of intervention as the Korean Peninsula’s 85,232, Vietnam’s 128,066 and Czechoslovakia’s 78,871.

Moreover, whereas the Soviets invaded Manchuria (390,625) in 1945 with two million troops, Vladimir Putin, who cannot draw on the same land forces as Stalin, has deployed fewer than 200,000.

Moreover, Russia cannot draw on the support of the Warsaw Pact allies as the Soviet Union did when invading Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, modern missiles offer little for the control of over 40 million people, and you cannot have a secret policeman at everyone’s elbow.

So, due to arrogance and stupidity, Putin, with his unprovoked, illegal, and totally unnecessary aggression, has put Russia in a very difficult position. Yet, however badly it goes, it is hard to see any Russian government letting Ukraine become a member of NATO because, although neither is a threat to Russia, that is not how they are considered by the paranoid Russian leadership.

On the mega-strategic level, this Russian attitude to Ukraine is made more difficult because of the range of other crises in which Russia could play a more or less hostile role, from East to South-West Asia and the Balkans to the Caribbean. A hostile Russia could make such issues as Iranian aggression, Chinese expansionism, and North Korean volatility far more difficult, and could further empower dictatorial allies or would-be allies, a list by no means limited to Belarus, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela, none of which offer a pleasant prospect for Ukraine.

Western policymakers are going to have to consider the knock-on impact of the specific crisis, and the need to recalibrate tripwires elsewhere, both diplomatic and military.

The ability of the West to act with unity in this crisis will require continual care which means the need for real skill on the part of the Foreign Office and its ministers, and a Prime Minister able to devote sustained attention.

There is also the political wake within Britain. Covid costs and attention hit hard at this government, forcing the jettisoning of projects, such as the Yorkshire spur of HS2, and, more seriously, weakening its attention and energy. Differently, the same is the case with the Ukraine crisis, which, with Putin’s talk about nuclear alert, makes the relative inconsequence of the Covid pandemic more apparent.

Domestic governance will be harder as projects are cancelled and hopes brought low, and, aside from resulting problems, it would be unrealistic not to assume that Russia will meddle in domestic politics, not least by continuing to support separatist movements.

This situation ensures a need for maturity and judgment in the short term, but also consideration of the degree to which our democratic system is undermined from within by anti-democratic forces. The Soviet Union did so with some success during the Cold War, not least through providing assistance via allies to the Provisional IRA and the National Union of Miners, and it is naïve to expect that the same will not recur. This provides a particular need for government to consider how best to monitor, assess and, if necessary, counter dangerous, if not treasonable, domestic opposition.

As with the Cold War, this is a task that ranges widely, to include intellectual division. Indeed, there is a clear context in terms of culture wars, which the Left repeatedly appears to be winning, not least in the universities. Many who denounce a long past of the British empire and of the Atlantic slave trade appear all-too-oblivious about Russian imperialism and about the enslavement of the Ukrainians. What might appear a troubling absence of values is in fact a commitment against our country.

David Skelton: Brexit can unleash a new era of reindustrialisation. But only if we are free from state aid laws.

17 Sep

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

Brexit provides the UK with an opportunity to build a new, high-skill, high-productivity economy. A bold agenda of reindustrialisation can revive regional economies and see the levelling-up agenda made flesh. But we can only make the most of these opportunities if we aren’t unnecessarily restricted by the EU’s state aid laws. As a sovereign nation, we should be free to follow an industrial policy that is best for Britain. We mustn’t have the ability of the British state to support innovation to be hidebound by the EU’s strict state aid rules.

There were many reasons that we voted to leave the EU. The ability to set our own laws and have them made by people who were elected and could be held accountable was a crucial part of the decision to Leave. A clear message was delivered in the referendum from long forgotten “post-industrial” towns across the country that we needed to tackle regional inequality. The EU’s apparent insistence on maintaining state aid rules after Brexit would ride roughshod over the first and make tackling regional inequality much more difficult to achieve.

I’ve long taken the view that the restrictive state aid rules imposed by the EU were one of the major obstacles to us achieving a new economic settlement that benefits the whole of the UK. The pursuit of a level playing field for the EU meant that the parts of the country that I talked about in Little Platoons, which were heavily impacted by deindustrialisation, became stuck in an economic cycle of low innovation, low skilled, low wage work.

This was bad for post-industrial parts of the country, but also bad for the economy as a whole, with the UK’s low productivity problem being particularly pronounced in those parts of the country that had seen economic decline for decades. The recycling of UK taxpayers cash (a reminder that we were a net contributor to the EU budget for decades) through much trumpeted structural funding was no substitute for the fact that state aid rules bound our hands and prevented us from a more ambitious strategy to reverse decades of decline.

Now we have left the EU, it’s essential that the EU isn’t able to bind our hands again as we look to shift the economic paradigm to that of a high-skills, high-productivity, high-wage, tech-driven economy. Freedom from EU state aid rules represents an important opportunity for us to deliver that altered economic settlement and to pursue a bold strategy that focuses on a high-tech reindustrialisation of our economy. This should emphasise the importance of manufacturing (including green industry) in reframing our economy.

Crucially, manufacturing is generally higher skill, more productive and more export driven than other sectors. Whereas manufacturing accounts for less than eight per cent of the jobs in the UK, it accounts for around two thirds of our R & D investment – the kind of investment that is crucial to future growth and prosperity. This R & D emphasis also underlines the importance of manufacturing creating what Shih and Pisano have described as the “industrial commons” – skills and knowledge networks and clusters that drive innovation further.

An industrial strategy free from the constraints of state-aid policy means that we can support the businesses and sectors that are at the forefront of the new industrial revolution and also use the power of government to create innovation hubs in the regions, along with government-supported and business-backed centres of industrial excellence. A new industrial policy, free from state-aid restrictions, could aim to deliver high innovation industrial hubs in regions where the transformative power of a government accelerated industrial commons could have an enormously positive impact.

Any discussion about the positive impact of industrial policy and the importance of a state-aid regime that supports it is normally accompanied with the construction of straw-men or, more accurately, straw “lame-ducks” and the argument that any industrial policy will inevitably go down the route of Britain in the 1970s.

This is an ideological worldview that regards the bailing out of British Leyland as trumping any international experience in the decades since.  However, what that international experience has shown is that by far the biggest risk for the UK lies in us not pursuing an intelligent industrial strategy.

International experience shows that state aid and industrial strategy can not only help to turn around lagging regions but also place countries at the forefront of emerging technologies. And successful international experience illustrates that an ambitious industrial strategy shouldn’t be about “bucking the market”, but, instead working with the market and using market signals to maximise the impact of government investment.

In many parts of Asia, including Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, industrial strategy has used market feedback to develop a sectoral industrial strategy that has seen living standards and productivity surge. In all cases, the feedback mechanism of the market has allowed governments to identify sectors for future growth and provide government investment that has allowed these countries to be leaders in key sectors.

The mid-century United States, seen wrongly as a laissez-faire bastion, also provides an example of gains that can be made when business and government work together. The hero of that story is Vannevar Bush, who saw the importance of the government strongly investing in and incubating innovation and helping to transfer ideas from the initial invention to the marketplace.

His importance has been summed up recently in the excellent work of Safi Bahcall. Bush understood that innovation and invention is key to future growth and prosperity, but also that early innovation is fragile and risky. Without government support, such innovation might well perish, but government support, through the likes of the National Science Foundation and DARPA allowed innovation to be nurtured at a crucial stage and resulted in a stream of inventions that transformed the economy.

Such a model, in which government nurtures innovation at the most important stage and invests in those companies at the cutting edge of key emerging technologies could be transformational for the UK economy, which already has a world-leading research base but often lacks the ability (or often means due to distorted or inefficient funding models) to maximise the commercialisation of innovation.

Government is in a position to support innovation at the most fragile stage of the innovation process in a way that the market simply cannot. An effective industrial strategy could maximise the UK’s strengths and use the directional sway of government to promote long-term growth outside of the South East. Such an ambitious policy would not, however, be fully possible under the stricture of EU state aid rules.

Brexit represents a remarkable opportunity for an economic renaissance in the UK. We no longer have to have ambition or imagination restricted by the EU’s state aid rules.

This renaissance could place the UK at the vanguard of the most industries and technologies over the coming decades. It could also bring about a lasting and meaningful transformation of parts of the country that have long been characterised by economic decline. This requires a sensible and strategic role for government, based on an independent economic policy that isn’t limited by the narrowly restrictive nature of EU state aid limits.

What would President Biden and Vice President Harris mean for the Special Relationship?

12 Aug

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

Contrary to some of the analysis of late, Joe Biden is by no means a shoo-in for the presidency in November. Nationally, polls are tightening and at the same point with 84 days to go in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead in the Five Thirty Eight polling average was 6.6 per cent. The Biden campaign will begin to face accusations of losing momentum if Donald Trump continues to chip away at his lead. On that basis, it makes sense that Biden has sought to wrestle back the narrative by announcing Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. If the Biden-Harris ticket is victorious in November, the White House will look like a very different place to the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Biden on Britain and Brexit

Biden is no Brexiteer like Trump. Biden and his old boss, President Obama, fell into line with David Cameron when they effectively backed the Remain campaign by declaring an independent UK would be at the “back of the queue” when it came to negotiating a US trade deal. The day after the EU referendum in 2016, Biden was in Dublin and remarked “We’d have preferred a different outcome”.

Nevertheless, the political imperative of the Special Relationship means there is no chance that Biden would abandon the UK on day one of his presidency. On the contrary, one would expect a presidential visit to London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin within the first six months of President Biden’s tenure. It is the final two stops of that likely trip that provide the most interesting topics for discussion.

Both presidential candidates have direct links to the UK. Donald Trump is an Anglophile and reveres his Scottish heritage. Biden’s proximity lies in Ireland. His great grandfather, James Finnegan, emigrated from County Louth as a child, in 1850. In advance of his 2016 visit to Ireland, Biden said: “James Joyce wrote, ‘When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart. Well, Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul.’” On a purely personal basis therefore, we have grounds for optimism that the Special Relationship is in safe hands no matter the election outcome.

Negotiating a US-UK FTA in a Biden presidency

Biden would almost certainly cool some of the Trump White House’s more aggressive trade policies such as obstructing the work of the World Trade Organization. But Biden’s 40 years of political experience means he knows which way the wind is blowing on trade. He will want to ensure any deal is seen to protect US jobs and domestic production, while maximising export potential.

What is more, Harris, Biden’s newly announced running mate, has said she would oppose any trade deals that don’t include high labour and environmental standards. She opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016 citing insufficient protection for US workers.

That rings alarm bells for those hoping the UK could ascend to the CPTPP – assuming the United States would do the same – therefore subverting the need for a bilateral US-UK FTA. Furthermore, Harris has little experience of the Special Relationship to speak of. On the foreign policy section of her website, she lists as “key partners” Japan, India, Mexico, and Korea. The UK is conspicuous in its absence for a potential future Vice President of the US

Where Washington and Westminster could align

In four clear instances we see Washington and Westminster aligning under the prospective leadership of Biden and Johnson respectively.

First, the Trump campaign and Republican Party are trying to paint Biden as a puppet of China. Consequently, he is being pushed into a more hawkish corner. That will mean alignment with an increasingly Sino-scepetic Downing Street and Parliament. Trump initially courted Chinese President Xi Jinping but since then has made an aggressively anti-China stance a key plank of his presidency. Having banned Huawei from our 5G infrastructure, Downing Street looks set to be largely in lockstep with Washington regardless of the outcome in November.

Second, Johnson’s government has shown little interest in entertaining Trump’s more excessive foreign policy ideals. The Trump administration has done its best to erode the World Trade Organization, considering it too kind to China. Conversely, Johnson has nominated Liam Fox to be its next Director-General. Both Fox and his successor at DIT, Liz Truss, extol the virtues of global trade and the rules-based international order that governs it. The British government aspires to be an invisible link in the chain that connects trading nations. In that regard, Biden would be supportive.

Third, environmental policy is one area in which Johnson and Trump do not see eye to eye. The stark divergence in approach has become an awkward rift between the two allies. The UK was a key supporter of the Paris Climate Accord from which Trump removed the US. As the Chair of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Downing Street would undoubtedly favour a US President who considers climate change one of the world’s biggest and most pressing priorities. That only applies to Biden.

Lastly, Iran. As Foreign Secretary, Johnson failed in his attempt to persuade the Trump administration to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. Biden would rejoin it in a heartbeat, having been a part of the Obama administration who orchestrated it in the first place.

In summary, the Special Relationship will endure irrespective of the winner in November. Built on a shared understanding and common values, the relationship transcends presidents and prime ministers. On China, the US and UK look set to form an even closer alliance alongside their Five Eyes allies. That is something both Trump and Biden appear to agree on.