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Constance Compton: The Party of foreign policy competence

Constance has a strong interest in foreign affairs and the transatlantic relationship.

As has been noted already on ConservativeHome, the full text of David Cameron’s speech this week commemorating the fifth anniversary of 9/11 was subtler and more balanced than the media coverage it received. But a team which gives message and PR the priority that Cameron’s does could not plausibly feign surprise that calling for a policy of 'patience and humility’ in preference to an existing policy that is ‘slavish’ and ‘simplistic’ has been seen as more significant and revealing of the Tories’ current stance than his welcome denunciation of the crudest forms of anti-Americanism.

The speech follows the Conservatives’ decision in July to go much further than Tony Blair in criticising Israeli action in the Lebanon and Gaza – language repeated by Cameron on Monday. Again, one could plead that this decision was motivated by the purest principle, rather than the hope of tapping into an ever-growing, fashionable anti-Americanism. But the decision to emphasise the stance in a Sunday Telegraph article as a divergence from US foreign policy, rather than diplomatically bury the fact, would suggest otherwise.

Press coverage has suggested that these statements could mark a radical departure from the party's recent history, but in fact it is most characteristic of the very period, under Michael Howard, from which David Cameron has been keenest to distance the Conservative Party.

Under Howard, the Conservatives' previously consistent stance on Iraq, and the party's ability to boast that its votes in the Commons had made the difference in allowing the Iraq War to be prosecuted by British forces, was squandered with opportunistic statements and u-turns that reflected opinion poll judgements that were naturally ephemeral in a rapidly changing situation such as Iraq after March 2003. It hardly seems unreasonable to say after the 2005 election that the electoral benefits of this approach are invisible - or negative. It is not a happy precedent, and its electoral failure offers a cautionary tale now for the party, when it finds itself tempted to repeat the experiment.

Daniel Hannan has frequently noted that objections to 'populism' are usually just another way of objecting to democracy. But the charge of populism hurled by a Guardian journalist at politicians who suggest a tough approach to law and order or asylum is one thing. Quite another is the populism that expresses itself in an attitude to foreign affairs that reflects less the international realities of Britain's place in the world, national interest and duties to its allies than an impotent irritation at the behaviour of others, such as America and Israel.

The difference is this: at election time, the first sort of populism is actually popular. The criminological evidence is now entirely aligned with common sense on the question of whether prison works: you have to be living on the moon to doubt that it does. And politicians can restrict immigration to levels consistent with good community relations and social stability. Parties which ignore these facts do not fare well with voters, and closing the gap with the Conservatives on these issues was an essential but oft-forgotten part of building New Labour’s credibility.

But the populism that expresses itself by objecting to the tough measures a country's allies take internationally, and by trendy anti-Americanism, ultimately works against the credibility of the politician uttering them. Many people find comfort even in the consistently anti-American rhetoric of George Galloway, Tony Benn or Menzies Campbell, but in choosing a government, voters always prefer a tough, realistic approach to the world and the international challenges Britain faces.

That Britain exists in a globalised world where threats originating in the Middle East can detonate on tube stations in the East End is not an observation confined to foreign policy wonks, but a reality obvious to everyone. While voters are rightly unwilling to accept the idea that they can’t have what they want in mostly domestic areas such as law and order, they instinctively understand in foreign policy the need for politicians to work with allies, to build and retain international credibility, and to act like statesmen - even if this gets in the way of those voters’ gut preferences. Populist appeals to these gut preferences come at a huge cost if the result is alienating traditional allies of Britain whose favour will provide voters the reassurance they need that the country’s national interests and security can be trusted in that party’s hands. They also amount to a very risky manoeuvre from a Tory Party that has already taken a softer line than Labour on domestic anti-terror measures ranging from identity cards to the internment of terror suspects.

The obvious counterpart to the decision to leave the European People’s Party (eventually) comes in stressing links beyond the European Union, most of all with the English-speaking world. By matching it instead with rhetoric likely to alienate much closer allies than Britain has in Europe, the Conservatives put at risk an essential component of electoral success in the post-9/11, post-7/7 world: being seen once again as the party of foreign policy competence.


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