Posts Tagged ‘David Cameron’

Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?

Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We had to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.

Hacker: But surely we’re all committed to the European ideal?

Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.

Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.

Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

Sir Humphrey: Yes… We call it diplomacy, Minister.


An exchange from the outstanding British political comedy series Yes, Minister, underscoring the strategic failure of British Prime Minister David Cameron this week. Britain should aim for either a disunited Europe, as cynically expressed by Sir Humphrey, or a united Europe with Britain at the core along with France and Germany. A Europe with Britain at the periphery is simply bad foreign policy.

Two lines of spin were being reported today. One line was that Cameron’s position in the Brussels summit was the inevitable culmination of a position that has been constant for at least three premierships and two changes of party. The argument goes that from the days of John Major keeping the UK out of the euro to the Blair administration’s continuation of that policy, Britain has stood apart from some key elements of European integration. That is true as far as that line of argument goes. Yes in fact Britain, along with nine other EU members, is not in the eurozone. But the spectacular failure of Cameron was that none of these nine potential partners joined his position forcing a solely eurozone deal. The European Council outcome was not 10 to 17, with Britain comfortably aligned with other non-eurozone countries. The outcome was 1 to 26, with Britain standing alone. After five hundred years a united Europe, and Britain on the outside looking in (BBC).

Deftly, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel had laid contingency plans for an outcome of the eurozone against non-eurozone EU states, warning that the eurozone could go ahead with a solely intra-eurozone treaty if non-eurozone states wouldn’t agree – warning Cameron against pressing too hard in negotiations lest the 17 eurozone states proceed without him and other non-eurozone colleagues altogether. But the French and Germans didn’t even have to settle for this to this fallback position. With a 1 to 26 outcome it was Cameron as the odd man out.

The other line of spin was that the Brussels outcome was some sort of victory. Having not received assurances of opt-outs, particularly concerning safeguarding London as a global financial center, Cameron blocked an EU-level treaty change. Claiming the summit outcome as a win for Cameron, well there’s some chuztpah at work here. As Alex Massie points out, if this is a win then what would defeat have looked like? More power for the European core, more power for Germany, more power for France, a Europe that will ultimately resemble more closely the German and French visions, and less influence for Britain. Once again, if this is victory, what exactly constitutes defeat?

Despite this fiscal compact, the euro-uncertainty may go on. There are parliamentary assents to be gained in several EU members and the possibility of referendums. Crises throw up the unexpected and this European compromise could yet be derailed. But examining the four corners of this European Council, Britain has not done well. This European Council outcome demonstrates Sir Humphrey’s cynical definition of diplomacy, Britain as a disuniting force in Europe, is no longer tenable. Given the fact that Paris and Berlin will not be divided, the wisest long term strategy for Britain is inside Europe.


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Students are not amused (Nick Clegg and David Cameron, Crown Copyright)

In a speech today at liberal-friendly think tank Centre Forum, David Cameron accused Labour of the worst kind of opportunism for not having outlined a detailed alternative policy on tuition fees. That charge, “the worst kind of opportunism” is leveled more accurately at Cameron’s LibDem coalition partners. The LibDems can’t be called Janus-faced only because they will face in three directions at once in Thursday’s vote on increasing tuition fees – LibDem ministers will vote in favor, some LibDem MPs will abstain, and still other LibDem MPs will vote against.

Pre-election, Nick Clegg declared, “I believe it is time for promises to be kept.” The Clegg that inveighed against the broken promises from Tories and Labour has disappeared. In place of the Clegg who pledged to oppose tuition fees on the campaign trail, we have a Clegg in government raising tuition fees considerably. Does this LibDem reversal in government count as opportunism as well? LibDem’s cratering credibility means students aren’t buying the coalition line on increasing fees as creating a fairer and more progressive higher education system. Frankly, I don’t blame them. The LibDem’s turnabout is as dramatic as a Green Party winning office and announcing that all that global warming stuff doesn’t really matter, and furthermore, it’s time for coal subsidies.

Observing the values in English higher education exposes some of the flaws in the US system. Specifically England because the UK Parliament has control only over higher education in England, not Northern Ireland, Wales, or Scotland; at the moment, only the English system is facing the tuition rise. England is heading down a path which the US has already advanced. Higher education is shifting from a social good towards being a private good. In the US this shift is evidenced by the erosion in the value of Pell Grants and the steady withdrawal of state support for public universities. Instead of acting as a ladder for increased social mobility, both US and English higher education systems leave considerable gaps in the lowest rungs. With the coalition government’s intended path, England moves towards widening these gaps, securing the position of the already advantaged.

A more market driven system – as Cameron said in his Q&A – is the aim. Never mind the larger benefits to society of a highly educated citizenry. I’ll close by quoting Michele Tolela Myers’ excellent piece, A Student is Not an Input:

A business professor told a group of us at one recent conference that to run a successful organization you had better make decisions on the basis of being ”best in the world,” and if you couldn’t be best in the world in something, then you outsourced the function or got rid of the unit that didn’t measure up. Have we really come to believe that we can only measure ourselves in relation to others, and that value and goodness are only measured against something outside the self? Do we really want to teach our children that life is all about beating the competition?

As we in the academy begin to use business-speak fluently, we become accustomed to thinking in commercialized terms about education. We talk no longer as public intellectuals, but as entrepreneurs. And we thus encourage instead of fight the disturbing trend that makes education a consumer good rather than a public good. If we think this way, our decisions will be driven, at least in part, by consumers’ tastes. Are we ready to think that we should only teach what students want or be driven out of business?

The Philosopher in Meditation, Rembrandt (1632)

Physics is hard, it is costly, it is undersubscribed. Should it be taught only in engineering schools? I don’t think so. Should we not teach math because everyone can get a cheap calculator? Should we stop teaching foreign languages because English has become the international language? And what about the arts, literature, philosophy? Many might think them impractical. 

I think we have a responsibility to insist that education is more than learning job skills, that it is also the bedrock of a democracy. I think we must be very careful that in the race to become wealthier, more prestigious, and to be ranked Number One, we don’t lose sight of the real purpose of education, which is to make people free — to give them the grounding they need to think for themselves and participate as intelligent members of a free society. Obsolete or naive? I surely hope not.

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Fortune plango vulnera I bemoan the wounds of Fortune
stillantibus ocellis with weeping eyes,
quod sua michi munera for the gifts she made me
subtrahit rebellis. she perversely takes away.
Verum est, quod legitur, It is written in truth,
fronte capillata, that she has a fine head of hair,
sed plerumque sequitur but, when it comes to seizing an opportunity
Occasio calvata. she is bald.
In Fortune solio On Fortune’s throne
sederam elatus, I used to sit raised up,
prosperitatis vario crowned with
flore coronatus; the many-coloured flowers of prosperity;
quicquid enim florui though I may have flourished
felix et beatus, happy and blessed,
nunc a summo corrui now I fall from the peak
gloria privatus. deprived of glory.
Fortune rota volvitur: The wheel of Fortune turns;
descendo minoratus; I go down, demeaned;
alter in altum tollitur; another is raised up;
nimis exaltatus far too high up
rex sedet in vertice sits the king at the summit –
caveat ruinam! let him fear ruin!
nam sub axe legimus for under the axis is written
Hecubam reginam. Queen Hecuba.

– I bemoan the wounds of Fortune, Orff’s Carmina Burana (libretto)

Just like that. The smooth, carefully choreographed final act of British politics took place yesterday, with Gordon Brown as fortune’s unfortunate. After five days of turbulence, fleets of Jaguars ferrying party negotiators about, and swimming in the speculation that passed for reportage, the United Kingdom has an outcome. Brown delivered his farewell and took the short journey to Buckingham Palace where he resigned as prime minister and advised the Queen to call on David Cameron to form a new government. Perhaps half an hour later Cameron was at the palace to speak with the Queen, then Downing Street to speak to the world. We finally have the result of the general election, David Cameron is to head a Tory government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats with Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister. After nearly nonexistent transition, the UK has a new Prime Minister.

Near my house a Labour election poster proclaims Margaret Thatcher the LibDem poster girl. In this part of London, that is meant as an epithet, not a compliment. The entire left of the LibDem party, who voted LibDem to keep the Tories out of government, will look askance at the post election negotiations that resulted in a Tory government. I imagine, having endorsed the LibDems, the editorial board of the Guardian retching as Cameron entered 10 Downing Street. The progressive parties didn’t link up in a Rainbow Coalition as envisioned by many. One MP commented that the Lib-Lab dream was dead.

Coalition politics requires acquiescence of the politicians and the voters. For the politicians, there will be plenty of disappointed Tory grandees who don’t get seats in the cabinet. Additionally, the right leaning anti-modernizing section of the Conservatives will have some complaints about what precisely was sacrificed to create this Tory-LibDem government. Perhaps power will mollify the critics and prevent fissures, but Tory-LibDem is an awkward partnership.

As for Labour politicians, the campaign literature almost writes itself. Labour will pin crypto-Tory to every LibDem politician. Labour politicians have already claimed the title as the only progressive party in British politics. Furthermore, with spending cuts to come I predict some easy point scoring on class-based critiques of Tories. Basically, the top of the Conservative leadership have had privileged lives (Eton, the Bullingdon Club), the withdrawal of welfare programs and/or front line public services is going to be unpopular and well, as I said before, the election literature nearly writes itself.

I’ve been reading and watching commentary on the sustainability of the Tory-LibDem partnership, the coalition is meant to least five years. I think along with everyone else, I just don’t know if this is sustainable. The parties’ philosophies are very different, on several issues (immigration, nuclear deterrance) the LibDems ran as to the left of Labour. And you can’t write down everything in a coalition agreement, new issues will arise, unforeseen challenges will present themselves. Yes, the coalition has a cushion of parliamentary seats to allow for defections, and serving in cabinet together means the parties are as closely lashed together as is possible. But for instance, recall during the debates Nick Clegg said the Tories had allied themselves to “nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes” in the European Parliament. Now Clegg is to be Cameron’s deputy prime minister and they’re going to get along just fine? What’s more, internally the Tories are divided on Europe, one of the issues that brought down Thatcher and caused John Major to label some of him fellow party members bastards. The euroskeptic Tory party and the most europhile party in coalition together. There’s bound to be a question mark over sustainability.

I’m sorry to see Gordon Brown go. His speech at the Open University is probably the nearest thing to the type of cosmopolitanism I favor I’ve seen in international politics (Youtube, 37 minutes). Strong echoes of Alexander Wendt’s “Why a World State is Inevitable: Teleology and the Logic of Anarchy” (pdf). In the meantime, Cameron and Clegg need to watch out for Fortune’s wheel, their colleagues in Parliament may have some comment on how long this partnership will last.

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Cognitive polyphasia is how one pollster described public opinion. Voters desire public policy that reconciles the irreconcilable. The examples the pollster used were the British public’s wanting Swedish level public services on American levels of taxation, local control over public services without the postcode lottery, and more fellow citizens to participate in local governance without personally volunteering for the task. It is up to politicians to attempt to makes some sense out of voters’ conflicting goals and steer public policy in a coherent direction. Overall, I think the Labour Party makes the most sense of these competing demands. If I could vote in the UK elections today, I would vote Labour.*

Though they ultimately endorsed Cameron, the Economist has an excellent survey of Labour’s accomplishments over the past 13 years. (I’m particularly amused that the Economist uses the Iraq War against Blair, though the paper supported the war.) The minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, civil partnerships, removing most hereditary peers, dramatically improving the health service, the massive schools and hospitals building program, Sure Start (similar to Head Start in the US) – a sampling of Labours accomplishments in office. If cuts in government spending must be made in the coming years, I trust Labour to make them. In part because I know that Labour won’t relish making cuts. Labour will be more sensitive to the consequences of cuts for those who have the least. (One of the Tories’ priorities is to cut inheritance taxes; the Tories are also highly likely to raise the regressive Value Added Tax.)

As for the Tories, I’m deeply skeptical of parties that were so recently toxic; xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, the Tories have ventured into all sorts of nasty corners of UK politics. One is obligated to ask exactly how thoroughgoing are the shifts in Tory policies? One of the emblematic examples during the campaign was the Shadow Home Secretary’s gaffe. Chris Grayling suggested that Bed and Breakfasts should be allowed to bar gay guests out of deference to a proprietor’s conscience (BBC). If elected, as Home Secretary Grayling would be responsible for enforcing the statute that bars that sort of discrimination. After Grayling’s comments became public he did some furious backpedaling, and dropped of the campaign radar for a few days. Even if the echoes are faint, the battle over repealing Section 28 (a nasty bit of anti-gay legislation from the 1980’s) comes to mind. Guess which side the Tories were on?

Looking at the Tories more broadly, the section of the party dubbed the Turnip Taliban does not exactly inspire confidence; progressive ends with conservative means sounds nice, but there are crosswinds that have gone unacknowledged. That segment of the Tories is probably less widely reported abroad, but they’re liable to come up with chestnuts like, “I have got absolutely nothing against women. Who cooks my lunch? Who cooks my dinner? How did my wonderful three children appear? Women, you can’t do without them. My God, take my wife” (BBC). David Cameron and the Notting Hill set must jockey for power within the Conservative Party with the Turnip Taliban and it is unclear that Cameron will win.

Cameron detoxifying the Tories reminds me of the feminist cookies, particularly this one,

Minimum Standards

Congratulations to David Cameron. He has brought the Tories to the minimum standards of respectability. Maybe. Withdrawing from the mainstream center-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament to found a new bloc with highly suspect right-wing parties means Cameron does not get the cookie just yet (BBC).

Finally, I’m skeptical about Cameron’s Big Idea this election, the Big Society. In short, Cameron seeks to roll back the state and sees civil society as poised to take on formerly state responsibilities. Dissatisfied with your local school, well band together with parents and start your own – so goes the Tories thinking. My cognitive polyphasia intro may have indicated where I am on this debate of the public suddenly taking the reigns from a chastened state. Civil society based provision of public services is exposed to the risk of exogenous shocks. What happened to those charities that invested with Bernard Madoff? They closed (Haaretz). Civil society is not always as committed to nondiscrimination as public authorities providing services. For instance, in Washington DC the Catholic Church threatened to withdraw a wide range of services, adoption, homeless shelters, and health care. Why the dramatic threat? DC proposed religious organizations “obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians.” WaPo. The government should not be exposed to threats by charitable organizations. It is great that charities supplement public work, but reliance on civil society introduces goals and visions of public policy that may not align with government’s responsibility to promote everyone’s welfare. Overall, the government can provide a stable home for public service provision.

So, that’s my view of the British elections. I hope the British public agrees.

* Full disclosure, I’ve been interning at the Labour Party, so I was not likely to endorse the Tories. I mentioned I was working for a British political party in December, but had not identified it. The views expressed here are only my own, I don’t know why anyone would get the impression I spoke for anyone else, but just to be on the safe side.

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