Damaging The UK?

The Financial Times has what I consider to be an important editorial this morning. It concerns a letter 52 former ambassadors and international officials have written to Tony Blair telling him he is damaging UK (and western) interests by backing George W. Bush’s misguided policies in the Middle East. The FT describes this as “the most stinging rebuke ever to a British government by its foreign policy establishment” and comments wryly: “It would be comforting to imagine that their comments will be heeded.”

The FT does not mince it’s words:

In any case, the notion that so-called Arabists – expert in the language, culture and politics of Arab countries – should be excluded from policy because of their alleged predilection to “go native” should be discredited by the way the Pentagon, which shut out anyone with actual knowledge of Iraq, has serially bungled the occupation“.

The FT is hardly a radical rag, given to frequent rants, so this broadside seems deeply significant.

This development looks very important indeed to me in the context of UK politics. It reminds me of only a few other occasions, all from the Thatcher era, and in conjunction really marking a turning point. The first was the when the Church of England came out openly criticising the apparent lack of concern for the plight of the poor. The second was when the Oxford Dons refused to give her an honorary degree, and, now I come to think of it, there was a third: when the Queen openly sided with the black African Commonwealth states against Ms Thatchers apparent soft-peddling on South African racism.

In this context the words of warning coming from the British diplomatic corps seem to me to mark a watershed. Given the nature of UK society (which is of course, very, very different from the US) Blair will turn a deaf ear to this at his peril.

The organisers of this most undiplomatic d?marche are, moreover, Atlanticists. Yet, in essence, what they are telling Mr Blair is: if you really have influence with the Bush administration, now is the time to use it. If that proves “unacceptable or unwelcome” in Washington, they write, “there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure”.

Looking into the tea leaves if this goes on it is hard to see Blair surviving much beyond the next general election even should he win it. As another article in the Guardian makes plain, even the MOD is far from happy:

the concern about British policies is shared by senior military figures. One defence source, referring to the US military attacks on Falluja and Najaf, told the Guardian: “We do things differently.”

“The British should be saying to the Americans, ‘If we are to be involved then we’ll do it our way,'” echoed Colonel Christopher Langton, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, referring to the holy Shia city of Najaf.

Despite Mr Blair’s comment that “the advice we have is that we have sufficient troops to do the job”, senior officers are drawing up plans to send more troops to Iraq. They are also making it plain that they do not want to operate under US command. “There are severe worries if we operate under the American way of doing things, and getting all the flack, then it will spread to Basra,” a defence source said.

In all of this I am reminded of one of my favourite phrases from Sophocles’ Antigone: “call no man happy until the day they die”. Tony, the golden boy who could have had everything, who could have re-united the UK and restored to the former colonial power some of its long lost sense of self respect and prosperity seems to be coming remarkably near to throwing it all away if you ask me. But then again, no-one really is.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

7 thoughts on “Damaging The UK?

  1. On the one hand, your judgement on the Madrid bombing was broken. On the other, I agree with you so much that it’s hard to be contrary, and I have done on anything related to the UK, and it’s been pretty accurate. I’m sure you’ve read this, too. 🙂

  2. It is not now just a matter of “a letter 52 former ambassadors and international officials have written to Tony Blair telling him he is damaging UK (and western) interests by backing George W. Bush’s misguided policies in the Middle East.” Others have started to rake over Tony Blair’s record as prime minister.

    There was his early enthusiasm on becoming PM in 1997 for Britain to sign up to the Euro to be “at the heart of Europe”. Fortunately, we have so far managed to avoid becoming entangled with the flagging economic performance of the Eurozone, which has achieved higher rates of both inflation and unemployment than Britain as well as slower GDP growth since launch of the Euro in January 1999. But then in February 1998, more than a 150 German professors of economics wrote an open letter to the Financial Times urging the German government to postpone engagement in European monetary union: http://www.internetional.se/9802brdpr.htm

    At Britain’s last general election in 2001, Tony Blair was committed to the reform of the public services. Not much has come of that despite a massive increase in government spending on the public services:

    “Since Labour was elected in 1997, total public spending has risen almost 50% to ?459 billion. But the research found the taxpayer, hit by a series of stealth taxes, had not received value for money. Much of the cash had been swallowed up by an inefficient bureaucracy and inflation-busting pay rises for civil servants.” – from:

    “TONY BLAIR?S pledge to improve Britain?s public services has been dealt a blow by a leaked cabinet document that shows their efficiency has collapsed since he took power. The government has pumped extra tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers? money into the NHS, schools and police forces but the confidential memo reveals that productivity in the public sector has slumped by 10% since 1997.” – from: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,8122-1088597,00.html

    Last week, he announced a dramatic U-turn on having a national referendum before Britain signs up to a new Constitution for the European Union after he and cabinet ministers had been telling us for many months that the proposed Constitution was just a “tidying-up” exercise so a referendum wasn’t appropriate. The relevant insight into the merits of the Constitution is this recent assessment in the Financial Times by Sam Brittan, doyen of economic columnists in Britain and brother of Leon Brittan, who was Vice-President of the European Commission 1989-93: http://www.samuelbrittan.co.uk/text183_p.html

    The interesting thing is that all sorts of other people have also popped up to register their opposition to the Constitution who are not remotely connected with the usual band of suspect Eurosceptics:

    “Mr Blair faces further embarrassment today when his former economics adviser says he would vote against any new EU constitution that ‘remotely’ resembled the current draft. Derek Scott said: ‘If the referendum is on a constitution that looks remotely like the one in December, I think that not only I but a great many British people will be voting against it.'” – from: http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/story.jsp?story=515023

    One especially persuasive reason for being cautious about ever closer integration in Europe is the growing cost burden on business of the seemingly unending stream of new regulatory legislation in Europe:

    “Figures released today by the British Chambers of Commerce reveal that the cost to businesses of regulations introduced since 1997 has rocketed to ?30bn, a rise of 46 per cent. In 2003 British business was faced with the bill for an extra ?9bn.” – from: http://www.chamberonline.co.uk/cmn/viewdoc.jsp?cat=all&docid=BEP1_pressrel_0000063093

    Another reason for caution is that last year, the European Court of Auditors refused to endorse the Commission’s accounts for the ninth year in succession through to 2002, which didn’t altogether surprise those who closely follow European news: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3279675.stm

    Last summer, reports surfaced of large scale fraud in connection with Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistical service, lack of diligence on the part of OLAF, the Commission’s anti-fraud office, and of insider trading based on prior knowledge of grain prices posted for the Common Agricultural Policy. Readers here may recall that in March 1999, all the Commissioners resigned following an adverse report by an expert panel into fraud, nepotism and maladministration in the Commission.

    On his record as prime minister, Tony Blair appears to have a remarkable talent for making deeply flawed political judgements on major issues.

  3. “your judgement on the Madrid bombing was broken”

    Yeah, but only for 24 hours, and I did correct. This I think is a virtue :). I wish others could do likewise. It was a mindset problem. Ironically it was a case of being mislead by being near to the problem. I was so expecting something from Eta, it seemed so inevitable. Then it took time for the magnitude of the thing to sink in. Bit like 09/11 in reverse.

    Also some would say my euro posting was a bit up the spout, but this one isn’t over yet. Not by a long way.

    “I agree with you so much that it’s hard to be contrary”

    The worst part is that it’s like we are watching an enormous tragedy playing itself out, and we seem powerless to do anything.

    Going on like this is madness, and pulling the troops out would be too.

  4. I’ve been calling it the Humpty Dumpty effect all along. I think that it is possible that Bush has screwed things up badly enough that it will be impossible to fix them. All there is left is damage control and palliative medicine. But this fact is already being used against Kerry: “So what would you do to fix things, smarty-pants?” And we can expect PNAC people to say that things are bad enough that we have no choice but to take even bolder measures.

    Can’t “cut and run”, you see, which was the brandname immediately given to all choices other than “stay the course”. (I almost wrote “coarse”, which describes the only sorts of discriminations of which the American polity is capable).

    It’s quite possible that Kerry, sickened by what he sees and crippled by the ingrained cautiousness of Democrats, will NOT be able to propose any intelligible alternative to Bush’s policy. In which case Bush will step forward and win with a new, different, BOLD policy (Bush’s brandname: “bold”). Negativism is not good electoral politics (cf. Herman Melville: The Confidence Man) and the Bush people are unabashed.

    “He’s stinking up the place — get him out of there before he screws up again, and put someone else in” is actually acompletely rational. People do it all the time with incompetent employees and athletes. The burden of proof really isn’t on the new guy at a certain point — putting “someone else” in is good enough as long as the new guy has any credibility at all. But electoral politics doesn’t always work that way, and we’re seeing a lot of the “Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream” talk.

  5. “Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream” talk.”

    During WW2, in April 1940 when the going was tough, Britain swapped prime ministers from Neville Chamberlain to Winston Churchill and that didn’t turn out too badly. However, in fairness, Chamberlain was already a sick man and died before the year ended.

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