U-turn if you want to: Why Cameron isn’t bound to pre-election promises on defence


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Walzer, Metternich, dictators and R2P

UK Ministry of Defence CC BY-SA 2.0

UK Ministry of Defence CC BY-SA 2.0

Professor Michael Walzer gave the annual Fred Halliday memorial lecture at LSE this evening. Professor Walzer is most famous for his book Just and Unjust Wars. If you’re interested in when it is right to go to war (and when it is not) Walzer’s text is the place to start.

He offered a number of reflections on the responsibility to protect against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in Syria. Some of the points he raised reminded me of some thoughts I had on the subject but never quite got round to writing down. Spoiler alert: l am a cynical post-doc. The idealists among you will not enjoy what I am about to say. I know because I tested it on one of my students (sorry Brian).

Walzer proposed three criteria for judging when externally-imposed regime change should be considered in response to atrocities in a conflict situation. According to Walzer, an intervening state should:

  • Ensure there is a viable alternative government and support it as it establishes its authority over the state
  • Secure the regime’s weaponry. This may mean co-opting elements within the regime and especially its security forces.
  • Guarantee the physical safety of minority populations within the state.

Walzer noted these three requirements probably mean boots on the ground. He argued against ‘half-assed’ interventions that seem likely to make conditions worse. But he also argued that intervention in Syria could not possibly have been worse for the Syrian people than what has in practice been allowed to take place.

Later in the talk, Walzer argued for an incremental approach to regime change. This means in part achieving peace and security first, and keeping the establishment of liberal democracy as a longer-term goal. It means also getting the international community on board through the UN Security Council, and corralling neighbouring states to contribute their share.

All of these points got me thinking. Walzer’s argument was predicated on the assumption that any intervention in a conflict such as that in Syria (or Libya, say) inevitably meant changing the regime. But what if you relax that assumption? After all, the worst excesses of both the Assad and Gaddafi regimes came after the descent of their countries into de facto civil war. Before the fighting started they were engaged in what Walzer described as the ordinary repression conducted by authoritarian regimes; morally reprehensible, but short of the standard for the responsibility to protect to apply.

I am increasingly of the view that the outside world should indeed intervene at an early stage when an armed uprising threatens the stability of an authoritarian state. But not on the side of the rebels. On the side of the regime.

Prime Minister Tony Blair (UK) meets President Bashar al-Assad (Syria) in the aftermath of 9/11.

Prime Minister Tony Blair (UK) meets President Bashar al-Assad (Syria) in the aftermath of 9/11.

Backing the existing regime would meet all three of Walzer’s criteria. We know the Gaddafi and Assad regimes were capable of running their countries; they’d been doing it for years before the extraordinary circumstances of the Arab spring transformed simmering grievances into outright insurrection. We know they can secure their weapons. We know they are capable of not massacring their minorities; I say again, neither started engaging in the sort of activities that would trigger the responsibility to protect until after the risings against them began to make headway.

The UN Security Council could unite around backing an existing regime. So could regional powers; they’ve been living with it for years, after all. There would probably be no need for outside boots on the ground. And the sum of human suffering that would result would fall well short of that produced by the chaos we have seen when authoritarian regimes are allowed to fail (or indeed destroyed from outside, see Iraq).

A default stance in favour of existing regimes would have a clear strategic basis. The international community’s failure to unite around the Soviet effort to shore up the Communist regime in Afghanistan led to chaos and the rise of the Taliban. The decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein led to chaos, years of violent instability and the rise of ISIS. NATO’s action in Libya created a vacuum, as did the outside world’s inaction in Syria. Outside intervention that commanded the support of the international community and neighbouring states would not suffer from the legitimacy deficit that has dogged so much Western foreign policy in recent years. It would be more likely to achieve its objectives than the more nebulous efforts to spread ‘freedom and democracy’ we have seen in recent years. There would be fewer conflicts, fewer opportunities for extremist opportunists to capitalise on instability, fewer civilian casualties and fewer refugees.

Prince Klemens von Metternich

Prince Klemens von Metternich

The problem, of course, is the moral basis for this sort of policy stance. So far I’ve made the ‘realist’ argument. My inspiration has been less Walzer himself and more Prince Klemens von Metternich, State Chancellor of the Austrian Empire during the decades after the Napoleonic Wars. Metternich believed the greatest threat to human society lay in the instability associated with revolution. His ‘Metternich system’ of European congresses included a promise by Ancien Regime states to intervene to support each other in the event of rebellion.

The problem, of course, is that Metternich was profoundly anti-democratic in his objectives and intent. From the perspective of a liberal democrat, his approach is morally problematic. My student was concerned that my proposal shut down the possibility of human progress. I disagree. For me it creates the space for progress. For example, it is important to distinguish between my argument, that shoring up authoritarian regimes is better for their citizens in the short term, and an orientalist belief that ‘those people’ simply cannot do democracy. I am not saying that. I am arguing for playing a long game.

I am arguing that ‘those people’ most certainly can do democracy. Given the choice all people everywhere would choose to live in a state that makes overthrowing the government peacefully relatively straightforward, that provides the security and the institutions necessary for politics to reconcile conflicting interests, and that protects human rights. Of these things, security is the most fundamental, however. There can be no freedom without security. And there can be no security without the state.

Our objective in intervening should be, in the short term, to end the fighting, and ensure the existing state is sufficiently secure that the immediate crisis can be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed. From a moral perspective we justify this approach as the least worst outcome considering the descent into chaos likely following the collapse of an authoritarian state.

In the long term, then, our objective should be to bring about a gradual transition to a representative democracy. Here we can use our willingness to support the regime as leverage to a certain extent, getting it to agree to concessions without which we will take the support away (and possibly transfer it to rivals within the state). From a moral perspective we justify this approach in the same way we justify any political action; the only way conflicting interests are reconciled without violence is through negotiation and compromise. There are conflicting interests. Therefore there must be negotiation and compromise. We still retain the option of turning on the regime if we really need to. But we should give it the space to transform itself peacefully.

We don’t, in other words, give up our belief that liberal democracy is the way to go. But we show ourselves willing to work towards it incrementally, rather than seeking immediate, and unrealistic, change.

It’s not an inspirational approach to humanitarian intervention. It’s clearly far from ideal. But a Metternich-inspired strategy would, I submit, produce the least worst set of outcomes than all the alternatives I can see.

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Seriously, who am I supposed to vote for?

It’s not quite election season yet, but we’re getting there. One of the new things Britain will have to get used to as we conclude our first fixed five-year parliament is the long build-up to a general election. Already the papers are full of polls and speculation. The reality, however, is that no-one knows which way (if any) the 2015 vote is going to go.

For me the fragmentation of the electorate has a simple cause, and it isn’t the financial crisis of 2008 and the slow, painful path back to prosperity we continue as a country to confront. Instead it’s the options we face as voters. As I weigh up my options, I’m forced to admit that no party comes close to representing my interests or my views.

On the biggest question (still) facing the country, how best to recover from the crash, neither of the two largest parties adequately reflects my views. The Conservatives offer fiscal responsibility. But they promise to achieve it by breaking the backs of the poor. They revel in the destruction of public institutions. And a future Conservative government would happily privatize the NHS.

Labour, by contrast, offer a social conscience. No more food banks. No more privatization. But they offer instead more fiscal incontinence. During the 2010 campaign Ed Balls flat out denied that there even was a deficit.

I care about fiscal responsibility and I have a social conscience. Neither Labour nor the Conservative positions represent my views. Why not? Because both plan to save money by cutting things I value while protecting things that don’t benefit me, and wont. Neither party will touch one penny of the vast welfare spending currently going to the retired. Both will guarantee that young people of my generation cannot expect any kind of state pension at all; that is the implication of deficit spending to finance giveaways to wealthy pensioners who don’t need them. Both will, in their separate ways, damage higher education and put my livelihood at risk. The Conservatives by trying to prevent high fee-paying overseas students entering the country. Labour by slashing tuition fees and failing to make up the difference by restoring teaching grants.

The Liberal Democrats claim to offer what I want. Nick Clegg sounds quite convincing when he makes his case for a future coalition. We have been the Tories’ social conscience, he says. We will be Labour’s sense of fiscal responsibility. Perhaps. Even with 25 MPs the party might still hold the Westminster balance. But it has had five years. My response is simple; is that the best you can do?

Crucially, no-one plans to do anything about house prices. House prices have risen to such ridiculous heights that I will never be able to afford to buy a house in London no matter what I do. One day (hopefully not any time soon) I will inherit property from my parents. But with the inheritance tax threshold fixed at half the price of the average two-bedroom flat in London, I can expect a big chunk of that inheritance to disappear, probably enough to ensure I still won’t be able to buy a place. The average price of a house in London is twenty times the average salary in London. This is not a sustainable situation.

The ridiculously inflated cost of housing is the most important issue facing people of my generation. No party will do anything about it. Insisting on giving the same benefits to all over-65s regardless of wealth or income means guaranteeing that under-35s can expect no retirement benefits at all. No party will do anything about it. Instead we face two likely scenarios. Nigel Farage as deputy PM and an economically catastrophic (not to mention politically myopic) EU exit. Or a Lib/Lab/SNP coalition, six months of having an Aardman animation as PM before he gets knifed in the back by Ed Balls, and even more long-term borrowing to finance short-term expenditure while investment in human capital and physical infrastructure is cut.

I’m going to vote. I think everyone should vote. But when a middle-class, Oxford-educated, professional white man from London feels no political party represents him, you know something has gone seriously wrong.

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The significance of parliament’s vote to intervene militarily in Iraq

Some more from me on the significance of Parliament’s vote in favour of involvement in Western military action against ISIL in Iraq.


See also: citation in the New York Times.

PS: I was on TV again, too:

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Salmond and Farage: Ostriches against the world

I realised recently that Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage have a great deal in common.

They are both far better politicians than the current crop of ‘major’ party leaders. Though that’s hardly difficult. Ed Miliband has the charisma of a poorly-thought-out scarecrow. Nick Clegg is leader of the Liberal Democrats. And David Cameron, with his big Tory face and Bullingdon Club accent, is hardly well-placed to represent a comparatively impoverished and resentful electorate. Farage and Salmond, by forging political careers in ‘minor’ parties, have largely escaped the sanitising process that is advancement shaped by who you know and selection driven by the forces of (small ‘c’) conservatism that dominate their ‘major’ counterparts. They are interesting. They seem like normal people, even though both are career politicians and Farage is just as rich and well-connected as Cameron.

There is more to it than that, though. For both Salmond and Farage correctly identify irrational fears and prejudices that ‘major’ party leaders elect to ignore, and seek to heighten them. Farage gains more support for his anti-immigrant views the further he moves from centres of immigrant populations. Salmond’s anti-Tory message resonates in a part of the United Kingdom granted disproportionate power to keep the Tories out. Both agree that ‘their’ people are losing out, economically and politically, because of decisions made by ‘foreigners’ elsewhere. Both see the cause of all their nation’s problems in the failures of decision-makers overseas.

For Salmond, Scotland’s only problem is rule by an alien Westminster elite, dominated by ‘English’ people such as Alastair Darling and Gordon Brown. For Farage, Britain’s every ill can be attributed to Brussels-based ‘Eurocrats’; without nationality and without a human face. Both leaders represent a counsel of despair in the face of globalisation and its inevitable dislocations. Both propose an ostrich response. Stick your heads in the ground, they tell their voters. Pull back from international associations. Take care of yourselves. Then everything will be all right.

There are two big problems with this approach.

The first is that everything will not be alright. Scotland has a lot going for it as an independent country. But to succeed it will have first to endure the inevitable economic shock of breaking away from the UK. There will be job losses. There will be capital flight south of the border. There will be serious questions to answer about SNP spending plans since, without clarity over the status of an independent Scottish currency the country will not be able to borrow, and the SNP’s budget only pays for itself if North Sea oil is worth considerably more than it actually is.

In the long run, if Scotland can make itself more efficient (read: slash spending, cut wages and corporation taxes, and reduce public sector employment) it has good prospects. Once the initial shock subsides, the remaining oil will provide investment capital, and Scotland should still benefit from access to EU and (albeit on a more restricted basis than at present) to UK markets. It has considerable human capital and disproportionately strong universities (though again this could be under threat, since English students will presumably no longer be able to get UK student loans to cover tuition fees North of the border, nor will the top research institutions benefit from UK-wide funding opportunities). It will have much in common with Ireland, but the benefit of Irish hindsight to help it avoid Irish-style over-extension (something the movement of most Scottish banks to London will further assist).

Ireland, though, is worse off economically than Scotland currently is within the UK. And an independent Scotland would still be subject to the same international pressures driving many of its present concerns. It may not have to fight any more wars, but it will still face the threat of domestic jihadism. It may not be bound by ‘English’ capitalism, but it will find the international sort looks pretty much the same. It may no longer see North Sea oil revenues flowing South, but it will no longer benefit from the extra £1,400 of public sector spending per head it currently receives from the rest of the UK. For the first five years or so the two cancel each other out, assuming the SNP does not actually try to build up a Norwegian-style oil revenue fund. After that, Scotland will face the same questions over the affordability of universal welfare in the face of a progressively ageing population currently occupying not only the rest of the UK but the rest of the developed world. The same problems will still be there. There will be new ones as well.

Many similar points can be made about Farage’s plan to leave the EU. There is no conceivable scenario under which a British exit would leave the British people better off economically. It is possible that some UKIP donors will benefit, as will the cannier of Mr Farage’s fellow stockbrokers. Most of us will have to deal with the large-scale destruction of Britain’s export services, the influx of around one million Britons currently working elsewhere in the EU, and the perversity of still being bound by EU regulations having surrendered the right to influence their creation. States seeking to trade with the EU, as we presumably would do unless Mr Farage proposes a return to subsistence farming for the majority, have to follow most of the same rules EU members do. Again, pulling out would leave Britain exposed to the international forces Mr Farage does not like, such as the global movement of people, without the cushioning umbrella of a larger, more powerful association to ease the blows. Mr Farage’s best hope is that the damage done by leaving the EU is so great that immigration declines simply because no-one wants to come here any more.

The second problem is that both Salmond and Farage underplay the power their respective target audiences have to influence the decision-making processes they claim are made by a foreign elite. Scotland is a significant player in the United Kingdom. It has disproportionate influence over the composition of the parliament at Westminster – 9% of the MPs to represent 8.3% of the population. London, by comparison, has 11.2% of MPs and 13.1% of the population. It has considerable devolved powers dealing with education, health and social care, sport, housing, law and order, and tourism – with more promised in the event of a ‘no’ vote. The London Assembly is far less powerful. Scotland’s strong sense of national identity gives it a prominent and distinct voice – no-one seriously believes that this identity is under threat from association with the rest of the UK. And the contrast Mr Salmond proposes, between the Scottish and the ‘English’ makes little sense. For one thing, the 2011 census showed just 80% of the population of England and Wales identified as ‘White British’, including people who saw themselves as English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish. Only around 60% saw themselves as primarily English. While the English are the largest single group in the UK, they are far from hegemonic, and they have far less collective power than the Scottish by virtue of their wider distribution and the absence of either an English parliament or a series of comparable regional assemblies.

Britain’s position in the EU is similarly stronger than Mr Farage admits. Lord Hill’s appointment as Financial Services commissioner reflects this. Even Jean-Claude Juncker, a European Commission insider dedicated the European federal project and dismissive of British Euro-scepticism, is willing to offer a substantial olive branch to David Cameron to reflect the fact that, with Germany and France, Britain is one of Europe’s three great powers. That is even after Cameron tried clumsily to block his selection, and then took the insulting step of nominating a commissioner nobody had heard of (most EU states send serving or former senior ministers, even prime ministers. By contrast, seriously, who actually is Lord Hill?).

If Britain took the EU more seriously it would have substantial influence. It would be better placed to shape it along its own preferred, less-integrated lines. Tony Blair realised this, but understood less about the practicalities and was undone by Gordon Brown and hostility over Iraq. Both Scotland in Britain and Britain in the EU enjoy considerable benefits from being part of a bigger ‘club’. In the face of globalisation, economic and political uncertainty, and the rise of new security threats, it makes sense for states to band together with like-minded others. All the trends in recent years have headed that way; witness the expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe that Farage so disparages. The benefits of scale should not be surrendered lightly. Nor should the opportunities for influence that the Scots enjoy in Westminster and the Brits enjoy in Brussels.

Both the SNP and UKIP promise to protect ‘their’ people by hiding them away from the evils of the world. They cannot possibly deliver; the world does not work like that. All they are left with, then, is an offer of diminished influence. For Scotland to lose its say in the governance of the UK. For Britain to surrender, for the first time, its right to influence in Europe.

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A quick and dirty look at what Scottish independence would mean for parliament

Today’s news that Scottish voters might yet vote yes to independence got me thinking about the political implications for the rest of the union. Alex Salmond’s main argument in favour of independence has been that Scotland doesn’t vote Conservative (broadly true) yet thanks to the Conservatives’ dominance in England, it still gets stuck with David Cameron as Prime Minister. Labour won 41 of the 59 Scottish seats at the 2010 election.

What would the impact be if those 59 seats simply disappeared ahead of the 2015 election? It’s a hypothetical question; whatever Salmond says, the negotiations over independence would take several years, so it’s likely Scottish MPs will still be elected next year. It’s an interesting question all the same.

2010 Parliament

Party Total seats Scottish seats Residual
Conservative 306 1 305
Labour 258 41 217
Lib Dem 57 11 46
Others 23 0 23
SNP 6 6 0

Table 1: distribution of seats, 2010 General Election

As table 1 shows, removing Scottish seats from the parliament elected in 2010 would have primarily benefitted the Conservatives. In fact, without the Scottish seats, David Cameron would have won a small overall majority of 19.

2015 Election

Whether or not they are experiencing buyer’s remorse, British voters have repeatedly told pollsters since 2010 that they would elect a Labour government given the opportunity. The most recent Yougov poll has Labour narrowly ahead, by 35% to 33%. I put these figures through the UK Polling Report swingometer and came out with a projected Labour win in 2015, with a small majority of 12. As with the 2010 result, however, this projection relies heavily on Labour success north of the border. Take Scotland out of the equation and you wind up with a hung parliament.

Party Projected 2015 seats Scottish seats Residual
Conservative 276 3 273
Labour 331 49 282
Lib Dem 16 3 13
Others 24 0 24
SNP 4 4 0

Table 2: projected distribution of seats, 2015 General Election

Table 2 breaks this down. The projected collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote largely benefits Labour, helping to fuel its overall majority. However, remove its 49 projected Scottish MPs from the equation and Labour is left holding just 48% of seats, 14 short of the 296 needed for an overall majority in the reduced 591-seat House of Commons. The Conservatives are close behind on 273. The most obvious outcome in such a situation would be a Lib-Lab coalition, underlining the point that the Liberal Democrats might yet remain in government after 2015 even though they expect to lose many of their seats. Even in coalition, however, the government would still lack an overall majority. It would have to rely on winning the support of at least some of the smaller parties. Based on current voting intentions, in other words, the removal of the Scottish constituencies from the equation would leave the rest of the UK with a hung parliament, and one even harder to control than the 2010 variant.


Projected 2015Residual

Figure 3: side by side comparison, projected 2015 election outcome and residual seat distribution after removal of Scottish MPs.

Figure 3 illustrates these outcomes. Under the present projection, we see Labour exceeding the level required for a majority. Under the revised ‘residual’ projection that excludes Scottish constituencies, Labour has fallen below the level required for a majority.

What all this means is difficult so say for sure. Certainly Scotland would escape the undoubted irritations of Tory government if it broke away from the rest of the UK. At the same time, it is not necessarily the case that Scottish independent would doom the rest of the UK to perpetual Conservative rule, as some observers have suggested. Instead it seems more likely that the removal of the Scottish seats would inadvertently level what is currently an uneven playing field between Labour and the Conservatives. At the moment the concentration of Labour votes in urban areas leaves the Conservatives needing a larger vote share to achieve a majority. Removing the Scottish seats seems to cancel out this advantage, leaving Labour slightly ahead of the Conservatives in line with their projected vote share lead of 2%, but giving neither an overall majority.

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Five questions to answer before intervening in Iraq

Some further thoughts from me on the prospect of Britain taking military action in Iraq over at the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.

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