Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nick Clegg

Should the European Union Be Armed?

Strategists have long been exasperated by the tendency of European countries to simply rely on American forces to keep their region safe for them. Protected under America’s military umbrella, European countries have annually slashed defense spending, diverting the savings to their ballooning and flabby welfare systems. Yet, the prospect of a European Union army, directed by federalist bureaucrats in Brussels, may not quite be what U.S. analysts had in mind. Had the EU been equipped with a large and well-armed fighting force, it is hardly likely that Russia would have been anymore deterred from its recent invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, were the European Union ever to acquire real military might, there is no guarantee that these forces would be used in a way that aligns solely with American interests.

This issue returned to the agenda on account of a high-profile televised debate that took place in Britain on the matter of that country’s membership in the EU. Last week the UK’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took part in the second of two debates with the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage, during which the prospect of an EU military force was one of several highly contested topics. The very fact that a senior member of the government would even be seen debating Farage is a reminder of how this formerly fringe party has recently exploded into the limelight. This has been driven by a growing anger that much of the British public feels about the fact that when they voted to join the European Economic Community back in 1975 they believed they were simply signing up for a trade agreement.   

The debate about the prospects of the EU acquiring a military revolves around the crucial issue of whether this is primarily a trading block oriented around a peace treaty or whether this is actually a nascent super-state, as federalists wish it to be. If the EU is going to be the latter then it is certainly moving in the right direction, with a flag, a currency, ambassadors, and perhaps next a full blown army. That is what has been agitating Farage and an ever more Euro-skeptic British public willing to support his agenda.

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Strategists have long been exasperated by the tendency of European countries to simply rely on American forces to keep their region safe for them. Protected under America’s military umbrella, European countries have annually slashed defense spending, diverting the savings to their ballooning and flabby welfare systems. Yet, the prospect of a European Union army, directed by federalist bureaucrats in Brussels, may not quite be what U.S. analysts had in mind. Had the EU been equipped with a large and well-armed fighting force, it is hardly likely that Russia would have been anymore deterred from its recent invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, were the European Union ever to acquire real military might, there is no guarantee that these forces would be used in a way that aligns solely with American interests.

This issue returned to the agenda on account of a high-profile televised debate that took place in Britain on the matter of that country’s membership in the EU. Last week the UK’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took part in the second of two debates with the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage, during which the prospect of an EU military force was one of several highly contested topics. The very fact that a senior member of the government would even be seen debating Farage is a reminder of how this formerly fringe party has recently exploded into the limelight. This has been driven by a growing anger that much of the British public feels about the fact that when they voted to join the European Economic Community back in 1975 they believed they were simply signing up for a trade agreement.   

The debate about the prospects of the EU acquiring a military revolves around the crucial issue of whether this is primarily a trading block oriented around a peace treaty or whether this is actually a nascent super-state, as federalists wish it to be. If the EU is going to be the latter then it is certainly moving in the right direction, with a flag, a currency, ambassadors, and perhaps next a full blown army. That is what has been agitating Farage and an ever more Euro-skeptic British public willing to support his agenda.

As things stand the EU is not entirely without the option of military recourse. It already has an External Action Service busy masterminding a Common Security and Defense Policy along with the European Union Military Committee that brings into coordination forces of individual member states undertaking joint operations under the EU insignia. Indeed, in recent days the EU has dispatched a task force for peace keeping to the Central African Republic. From the point of view of Brussels, however, the limitation of this arrangement is that it is reliant on how much of their own armed forces the individual member states are willing to contribute to any given mission.

During Britain’s recent televised debate, the deputy Prime Minister dismissed as fanciful Nigel Farage’s suggestion that the EU has been pushing for its own independent military capabilities. Yet, here he is in direct contradiction with what his own prime minister said, when in December of last year, David Cameron demanded full credit for vetoing moves to equip the EU with an air force. The proposals raised during an EU summit, backed by both Europe’s Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton and the European Commission, sought to equip Brussels with a fleet of drones and an Air Force comprised of heavy transport and air-to-air refueling planes. Meanwhile, the head of the European parliament Martin Shulz called for the creation of a fully-fledged European army.

NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen backed the British position, accepting the need for Europeans to invest in military capabilities but opposing the idea of the EU having its own separate military. Nevertheless, a report at the time revealed that Ashton’s External Action Service had already begun work in preparation for acquiring remotely piloted aircraft systems.

All of this raises the question of what exactly a militarized EU would do with a newly found army. Given the pacifistic sentiments of many European countries and the EU’s lack of resolve in what little it dose have in the way of a foreign policy–think Ashton’s role in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran–it is easy to imagine the European army being utterly impotent. Something similar to the United Nations’ ineffectual peacekeeping forces that go around the world observing and recording atrocities, pulling out the moment they fear they might come under fire themselves. After all, are Europe’s men going to lay down their lives in the name of Brussels’ federal project?

Yet, it may well be that the only thing worse than an inactive EU army would be active one. The thought of Catharine Ashton armed with drones, or Martin Shulz–the man who came to Israel’s parliament to lecture in German on Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians–having access to ground forces isn’t exactly comforting. Given the anti-Israel mood on European streets could the day come, during another conflagration in Gaza, when the EU might send forces to “restrain” “both sides,” or to “secure the borders” of a self-declared Palestinian state? These scenarios are quite improbable, but given that only last year a French diplomat was caught on camera scuffling with an IDF soldier in the West Bank, one gets the sense that there is a fringe that wouldn’t be opposed to intervening on behalf of the Palestinians.

Certainly Western nations need to pull their weight in keeping the world safe for democracies, but European federalists have their own unique worldview. With a military at their disposal there’s no guarantee as to quite what they might use it for. 

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Can Americans Count on the New Brit Coalition?

While one of the hallmarks of Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been the trashing of the formerly “special” relationship between the United States and Britain, it is interesting to speculate what would happen in the event that Washington really needed London’s help. While Gordon Brown’s Labour government could be relied upon as America’s pal in a pinch even if Obama treated the dour Scot like a dog, what would be the reaction from the coalition duo of David Cameron and Nick Clegg to a call for assistance from Obama, especially in the not-altogether-unlikely event of a crisis in the Middle East, involving Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

That’s the question Daniella Peled asks in today’s Guardian. Her answer is that it is far from certain how the new British coalition will respond. The problem lies in the competing agendas of the two parties as well as in their differing attitudes toward the United States.

On the one hand, Prime Minister Cameron has already demonstrated how desperate he is to buddy up with Obama, and the president, who clearly didn’t think much of Brown, isn’t averse to a warmer friendship with the new UK leader. But that doesn’t mean that Cameron is eager to become the junior partner on foreign-policy initiatives to the Americans that Tony Blair was, even if the current resident of the White House is Barack Obama rather than George W. Bush. As for the Conservative Party itself, Peled quotes one party leader as saying “we’re just not that interested” in the Middle East one way or another.

Their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, however, have a very different attitude toward foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular. The Lib-Dems want to distance the United Kingdom from America even more than Obama wants to distance the United States from Israel. Not only are they unhappy about continuing to fight the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; they are also virulently anti-Israel. All of which means that the Lib-Dems are unlikely to support any measures intended to seriously pressure Iran on the nuclear issue. As Peled states, this means there is a huge potential for conflict within the new government on key foreign-policy issues.

However, the notion that the new UK coalition will crack up over a 3 a.m. request from Obama to assist a strike on Iran is more fantasy than anything else. The Obama administration is more likely to learn to live with a nuclear Iran than to fight to remove the existential threat against Israel and the destabilization of the region. And for all of his desire to cozy up to Obama, Cameron’s desire to hold on to his place at No. 10 Downing Street probably outweighs anything else.

But even if we take such an apocalyptic scenario out of the discussion, there is no question that even a White House as devoted to multilateralism and engagement as that of Obama must understand that the new British government cannot be considered as reliable an ally as its predecessor. Neither the Tories nor the Lib-Dems aren’t interested in being portrayed as Obama’s poodles. Nor do they care much about Iran, Hezbollah, or Hamas. For all of his disdain for Gordon Brown, there may come a day when Barack Obama will wish the special relationship he helped destroy could be brought back to life.

While one of the hallmarks of Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been the trashing of the formerly “special” relationship between the United States and Britain, it is interesting to speculate what would happen in the event that Washington really needed London’s help. While Gordon Brown’s Labour government could be relied upon as America’s pal in a pinch even if Obama treated the dour Scot like a dog, what would be the reaction from the coalition duo of David Cameron and Nick Clegg to a call for assistance from Obama, especially in the not-altogether-unlikely event of a crisis in the Middle East, involving Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

That’s the question Daniella Peled asks in today’s Guardian. Her answer is that it is far from certain how the new British coalition will respond. The problem lies in the competing agendas of the two parties as well as in their differing attitudes toward the United States.

On the one hand, Prime Minister Cameron has already demonstrated how desperate he is to buddy up with Obama, and the president, who clearly didn’t think much of Brown, isn’t averse to a warmer friendship with the new UK leader. But that doesn’t mean that Cameron is eager to become the junior partner on foreign-policy initiatives to the Americans that Tony Blair was, even if the current resident of the White House is Barack Obama rather than George W. Bush. As for the Conservative Party itself, Peled quotes one party leader as saying “we’re just not that interested” in the Middle East one way or another.

Their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, however, have a very different attitude toward foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular. The Lib-Dems want to distance the United Kingdom from America even more than Obama wants to distance the United States from Israel. Not only are they unhappy about continuing to fight the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; they are also virulently anti-Israel. All of which means that the Lib-Dems are unlikely to support any measures intended to seriously pressure Iran on the nuclear issue. As Peled states, this means there is a huge potential for conflict within the new government on key foreign-policy issues.

However, the notion that the new UK coalition will crack up over a 3 a.m. request from Obama to assist a strike on Iran is more fantasy than anything else. The Obama administration is more likely to learn to live with a nuclear Iran than to fight to remove the existential threat against Israel and the destabilization of the region. And for all of his desire to cozy up to Obama, Cameron’s desire to hold on to his place at No. 10 Downing Street probably outweighs anything else.

But even if we take such an apocalyptic scenario out of the discussion, there is no question that even a White House as devoted to multilateralism and engagement as that of Obama must understand that the new British government cannot be considered as reliable an ally as its predecessor. Neither the Tories nor the Lib-Dems aren’t interested in being portrayed as Obama’s poodles. Nor do they care much about Iran, Hezbollah, or Hamas. For all of his disdain for Gordon Brown, there may come a day when Barack Obama will wish the special relationship he helped destroy could be brought back to life.

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So, What’s the British Outcome Mean?

Jokes abound. One colleague tells me it’s a Mick Jagger election: no one got any satisfaction. I’m reminded of Zhou Enlai’s response when asked about the significance of the French Revolution: it’s too soon to tell. But at the risk of being proved wrong by political developments over the next few hours, and analysis of the results over the next few years, let me offer a take.

First, one really heartening fact: as Martin Bright points out, it was a bad night for Islamists and fascists. The Respect coalition — Ken Livingstone’s ill-sorted collection of Islamist sympathizers — was crushed all around. George Galloway (what a relief to no longer have to describe him as George Galloway, MP) got the boot. The BNP was routed. Various MPs targeted by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee survived. This is all very satisfactory.

The second fact was the unexpectedly bad performance of the Liberal Democrats. When the first exit poll appeared at 10 p.m. local time, showing that the Lib Dems were likely to lose seats, no one — myself included — thought it had any credibility. It did. The tricky question is why. The explanation now percolating in commentators’ columns is that Nick Clegg rode a boomlet up and then rode it down.

I don’t discount that possibility, but here’s another: there never was that much support for the Lib Dems in the first place. The so-called Golden Rule of British political opinion polling for the past 20 years has been that the poll showing the worst result for Labour is the most accurate. The Tories are, usually, the beneficiary on the day of this nonexistent Labour support.

It may be that, in the middle weeks of the campaign, this non-support abandoned Labour (perhaps because no one wanted to say they were voting for Gordon Brown when they weren’t) and jumped ship to the Lib Dems. And then came the day that the non-support did what it usually does — slosh back to the Tories. That’s just speculation, but for now I incline to the belief that the Lib Dems became, for a brief moment, the verbally acceptable alternative for voters who actually had entirely different plans in mind.

The third fact, obviously, was that Cameron was unable to climb the mountain. And it was a mountain. Only once in Britain’s post-1945 electoral history has a government with a clear majority in the Commons been defeated and replaced by a different government, also with a clear majority. And that was in 1970, which was a shock result. It’s fair, probably, to say that Cameron might have been expected — should have been expected, maybe — to do better. But the mountain was really, really big.

The fourth fact is that the Tory successes were surprisingly random. Seats relatively high on their target list were not won — but this was (almost) balanced by successes where their odds seemed slim. The conclusion I draw is that this was an election where good constituency MPs were rewarded, and bad ones were punished. The expenses scandal of last year may have had a lot to do with this — Jacqui Smith, for example, went down to defeat. But it may also say something about the decay of parties as the organizing force in British politics, a subject I’ve complained about before. If so, it helps explain why Cameron couldn’t quite pull it off.

So, what’s next? As Yogi Berra supposedly said, predictions are dangerous, especially when they’re about the future. There are three things that will be decided over the next few hours, or days: who’ll be PM, whether there will be a coalition government, and when the next election is. My bet on the third point is October 2010: I see no way a coherent, stable government can be formed from the existing alignment in the Commons. As for the first point: Cameron. No one appears to want to do a deal with Gordon Brown except Brown himself.

The interesting question is how and on what terms Cameron will be installed in No. 10. One possibility is a full coalition government, with the Liberal Democrats. But except for the fact that both the Tories and the Lib Dems want to be in government, they have very little in common. They are miles apart on foreign policy and have less in common domestically than the Tories and Labour. A coalition between them would lack any organizing principle. Its price would probably be some sort of electoral reform — a possibility that is chewing up the newswires right now. I have written at length on the genesis of proportional representation in Britain, and I won’t burden anyone with that now. Suffice it to say that my research makes me very skeptical about its desirability.

A second possibility, therefore, is a Tory government drawing support on an issue-by-issue basis from the Lib Dems, Labour, the Ulster Unionists, and the other minor parties. This, to my mind, is the most likely possibility, but it’s also one of the least capable of offering strong leadership in response to the fiscal crisis. Come the next election, this might evolve into a Tory and Lib Dem agreement that each would focus its fire on Labour. That would gain the Tories enough seats to form a government, and the Lib Dems enough seats to move out of their status as the eternal bridesmaid of British politics.

And then there’s a third possibility. The Tories and Labour, in fact, have at least as much in common with each other as they do with the Liberal Democrats. In 1931, during the greatest of Britain’s previous fiscal crises, the collapse of the Labour government led to the election of a Tory-dominated government of national unity, with only the more extreme elements in British politics (elements of the Labour Party, the Lloyd George Liberals, and Oswald Mosely) left on the side.

I don’t expect this to happen again. But if it did, and if the Tories and Labour both concentrated their electoral fire in the subsequent election on the Lib Dems, the result would probably be a Lib Dem wipeout. I wonder if this thought has occurred to Nick Clegg as he entertains offers from Cameron and Brown.

Jokes abound. One colleague tells me it’s a Mick Jagger election: no one got any satisfaction. I’m reminded of Zhou Enlai’s response when asked about the significance of the French Revolution: it’s too soon to tell. But at the risk of being proved wrong by political developments over the next few hours, and analysis of the results over the next few years, let me offer a take.

First, one really heartening fact: as Martin Bright points out, it was a bad night for Islamists and fascists. The Respect coalition — Ken Livingstone’s ill-sorted collection of Islamist sympathizers — was crushed all around. George Galloway (what a relief to no longer have to describe him as George Galloway, MP) got the boot. The BNP was routed. Various MPs targeted by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee survived. This is all very satisfactory.

The second fact was the unexpectedly bad performance of the Liberal Democrats. When the first exit poll appeared at 10 p.m. local time, showing that the Lib Dems were likely to lose seats, no one — myself included — thought it had any credibility. It did. The tricky question is why. The explanation now percolating in commentators’ columns is that Nick Clegg rode a boomlet up and then rode it down.

I don’t discount that possibility, but here’s another: there never was that much support for the Lib Dems in the first place. The so-called Golden Rule of British political opinion polling for the past 20 years has been that the poll showing the worst result for Labour is the most accurate. The Tories are, usually, the beneficiary on the day of this nonexistent Labour support.

It may be that, in the middle weeks of the campaign, this non-support abandoned Labour (perhaps because no one wanted to say they were voting for Gordon Brown when they weren’t) and jumped ship to the Lib Dems. And then came the day that the non-support did what it usually does — slosh back to the Tories. That’s just speculation, but for now I incline to the belief that the Lib Dems became, for a brief moment, the verbally acceptable alternative for voters who actually had entirely different plans in mind.

The third fact, obviously, was that Cameron was unable to climb the mountain. And it was a mountain. Only once in Britain’s post-1945 electoral history has a government with a clear majority in the Commons been defeated and replaced by a different government, also with a clear majority. And that was in 1970, which was a shock result. It’s fair, probably, to say that Cameron might have been expected — should have been expected, maybe — to do better. But the mountain was really, really big.

The fourth fact is that the Tory successes were surprisingly random. Seats relatively high on their target list were not won — but this was (almost) balanced by successes where their odds seemed slim. The conclusion I draw is that this was an election where good constituency MPs were rewarded, and bad ones were punished. The expenses scandal of last year may have had a lot to do with this — Jacqui Smith, for example, went down to defeat. But it may also say something about the decay of parties as the organizing force in British politics, a subject I’ve complained about before. If so, it helps explain why Cameron couldn’t quite pull it off.

So, what’s next? As Yogi Berra supposedly said, predictions are dangerous, especially when they’re about the future. There are three things that will be decided over the next few hours, or days: who’ll be PM, whether there will be a coalition government, and when the next election is. My bet on the third point is October 2010: I see no way a coherent, stable government can be formed from the existing alignment in the Commons. As for the first point: Cameron. No one appears to want to do a deal with Gordon Brown except Brown himself.

The interesting question is how and on what terms Cameron will be installed in No. 10. One possibility is a full coalition government, with the Liberal Democrats. But except for the fact that both the Tories and the Lib Dems want to be in government, they have very little in common. They are miles apart on foreign policy and have less in common domestically than the Tories and Labour. A coalition between them would lack any organizing principle. Its price would probably be some sort of electoral reform — a possibility that is chewing up the newswires right now. I have written at length on the genesis of proportional representation in Britain, and I won’t burden anyone with that now. Suffice it to say that my research makes me very skeptical about its desirability.

A second possibility, therefore, is a Tory government drawing support on an issue-by-issue basis from the Lib Dems, Labour, the Ulster Unionists, and the other minor parties. This, to my mind, is the most likely possibility, but it’s also one of the least capable of offering strong leadership in response to the fiscal crisis. Come the next election, this might evolve into a Tory and Lib Dem agreement that each would focus its fire on Labour. That would gain the Tories enough seats to form a government, and the Lib Dems enough seats to move out of their status as the eternal bridesmaid of British politics.

And then there’s a third possibility. The Tories and Labour, in fact, have at least as much in common with each other as they do with the Liberal Democrats. In 1931, during the greatest of Britain’s previous fiscal crises, the collapse of the Labour government led to the election of a Tory-dominated government of national unity, with only the more extreme elements in British politics (elements of the Labour Party, the Lloyd George Liberals, and Oswald Mosely) left on the side.

I don’t expect this to happen again. But if it did, and if the Tories and Labour both concentrated their electoral fire in the subsequent election on the Lib Dems, the result would probably be a Lib Dem wipeout. I wonder if this thought has occurred to Nick Clegg as he entertains offers from Cameron and Brown.

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The Worst Brit PM: Loser of the Colonies or Appeaser of Hitler?

As we await the results of today’s British elections, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm about the outcome, given the dismal choices facing the voters there. David Cameron, the not-very-conservative Conservative leader who doesn’t appear to be much of a friend to the United States, might be the best of the lot compared with Gordon Brown and Labour, and especially with the hard-left anti-Israel venom emanating from the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg, but that is to damn Cameron with faint praise.

But whoever the next resident of No. 10 Downing Street may be, the Times of London has provided readers with an interesting feature about his predecessors, ranking the top 50 British prime ministers. A panel of political writers and journalists — not historians — composed the list, but it still is enough to spark a lively conversation about the subject.

At the top of the list (no surprise here) is Winston Churchill, though it should be noted that the panel wasn’t unanimous about the choice, with one of the members voting for the overall No. 2 choice: David Lloyd George, who led Britain to victory during World War One. The rest of the top 10 were: William Gladstone, William Pitt the Younger, Margaret Thatcher, Sir Robert Peel, Clement Atlee, Earl Grey (it pays to have a tea named after you), Robert Walpole, and Benjamin Disraeli. (In case his buddy George W. Bush is interested, Tony Blair was ranked number 16, tied with the elder William Pitt.)

More curious than the leaders in the poll, most of whom are obvious choices, were the ones at the bottom. For those of us whose view of 20th century British history was primarily formed by our interest in the battle between Churchill and the “guilty men” who appeased Hitler, it is fascinating to note that while Neville Chamberlain’s name is synonymous with infamy, the Times panel thinks that he wasn’t really all that bad, ranking him at 34th, which is not so good but far from the bottom. Interestingly, fellow appeaser Stanley Baldwin, who preceded Chamberlain, was ranked fairly high at 14th, apparently because of the slick way he handled the abdication of Queen Elizabeth’s uncle the Duke of Windsor.

So who did the panel think were the worst prime ministers? Interestingly, the bottom three of this list of 49 men and one woman were the three Brits who lost the American colonies: Lord George Granville, the Duke of Grafton, and Lord North (1770-1782), who was the last and the least. There’s no question that these three were terrible British leaders, but I’m not exactly sure what it says about the Times of London — or Britain for that matter — that their panel thinks the creation of the United States was a greater disaster for their country than a policy of appeasement that led to a global war and to Auschwitz. I’d have thought that our friends across the pond had gotten over the results of the Battle of Yorktown a long while ago, but perhaps now that President Obama has put an end to the “special relationship” with Britain, the chasm between our two nations — divided, as G.B. Shaw said, by “a common language,” is even greater than we could have imagined.

As we await the results of today’s British elections, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm about the outcome, given the dismal choices facing the voters there. David Cameron, the not-very-conservative Conservative leader who doesn’t appear to be much of a friend to the United States, might be the best of the lot compared with Gordon Brown and Labour, and especially with the hard-left anti-Israel venom emanating from the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg, but that is to damn Cameron with faint praise.

But whoever the next resident of No. 10 Downing Street may be, the Times of London has provided readers with an interesting feature about his predecessors, ranking the top 50 British prime ministers. A panel of political writers and journalists — not historians — composed the list, but it still is enough to spark a lively conversation about the subject.

At the top of the list (no surprise here) is Winston Churchill, though it should be noted that the panel wasn’t unanimous about the choice, with one of the members voting for the overall No. 2 choice: David Lloyd George, who led Britain to victory during World War One. The rest of the top 10 were: William Gladstone, William Pitt the Younger, Margaret Thatcher, Sir Robert Peel, Clement Atlee, Earl Grey (it pays to have a tea named after you), Robert Walpole, and Benjamin Disraeli. (In case his buddy George W. Bush is interested, Tony Blair was ranked number 16, tied with the elder William Pitt.)

More curious than the leaders in the poll, most of whom are obvious choices, were the ones at the bottom. For those of us whose view of 20th century British history was primarily formed by our interest in the battle between Churchill and the “guilty men” who appeased Hitler, it is fascinating to note that while Neville Chamberlain’s name is synonymous with infamy, the Times panel thinks that he wasn’t really all that bad, ranking him at 34th, which is not so good but far from the bottom. Interestingly, fellow appeaser Stanley Baldwin, who preceded Chamberlain, was ranked fairly high at 14th, apparently because of the slick way he handled the abdication of Queen Elizabeth’s uncle the Duke of Windsor.

So who did the panel think were the worst prime ministers? Interestingly, the bottom three of this list of 49 men and one woman were the three Brits who lost the American colonies: Lord George Granville, the Duke of Grafton, and Lord North (1770-1782), who was the last and the least. There’s no question that these three were terrible British leaders, but I’m not exactly sure what it says about the Times of London — or Britain for that matter — that their panel thinks the creation of the United States was a greater disaster for their country than a policy of appeasement that led to a global war and to Auschwitz. I’d have thought that our friends across the pond had gotten over the results of the Battle of Yorktown a long while ago, but perhaps now that President Obama has put an end to the “special relationship” with Britain, the chasm between our two nations — divided, as G.B. Shaw said, by “a common language,” is even greater than we could have imagined.

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Something Must Be Done

A.A. Gill’s much-forwarded piece in the Times on Britain’s election is a delightfully readable mixture of wrong-headedness, error, and sputtering confusion, with some sensible ideas and superb acidity mixed in. There is a case to be made that the House of Commons is too big — though reducing it would only mean larger constituencies, and thus an even more tenuous connection between MPs and those constituencies. And there is an even better case to be made that, as the expenses scandal revealed, the Commons has been far too concerned with feathering its own nest.

On the other hand, some of his ideas are revealing in their errors. Gill’s worried about the role of the House of Lords, as if the Lords has really been a vital political issue at any point over the past 99 years. He’s angry that the constituency boundaries give Labour a substantial advantage. Actually, Labour’s built-in advantage is between six and 16 seats: it’s real, but it’s not huge. He’s angry that MPs have to concern themselves with “pointless” local matters like “potholes, traffic lights, arguments with the police and admissions to schools and hospitals,” as if these kinds of concerns are beneath the dignity of democratic politics.

And he’s annoyed that he has “never covered an election in a democracy where candidates have been so reluctant to speak to the electorate through the press.” Of course, one reason for that is that public appearances by Gordon Brown tend to alienate more voters than they attract. Another, more substantial one is that political speech in Britain during an election is heavily controlled by law, a fact that sheds some useful light on the merits of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision.

But when you come right down to it, Gill’s big beef is with Britain itself. He’s wonderfully dismissive of Nick Clegg (“He speaks five languages but can’t say boo in any of them”) and Gordon Brown (“He wrestles with an Old Testament temper, and it’s said that he has no friends. Certainly, none of them have come out to contradict this”), and his dismissal of proportional representation is excellent. Like Edward VIII, he believes that “something must be done,” but he’s not clear exactly what, apart to be sure that Britain’s traditions are at the root of its problems.

This is, frankly, ridiculous. The problem in Britain isn’t too much tradition. It’s the demolition of it. The vast majority of law in Britain is now made in Brussels. Parliament is immeasurably less important to politics than it has been in the past, as evidenced by the American-style debates that Gill praises. The idea that Parliament still works today as it did in Trollope’s age doesn’t bear up under scrutiny for more than a second.

Britain’s fundamental problem is that in a parliamentary system, you need both strong support for the government (otherwise it can be gone in minutes) and strong scrutiny of government (otherwise it’s omnipotent at worst or corrupt at best). The presidentialization of politics means a weakening of parties, and the decline of the Commons means less public scrutiny of government (and of the EU), as well as all manner of petty snouts in the trough. The system is being nibbled away — or gnawed away — at both ends. And predictably, inevitably, hopelessly, the call of the commentators is for more change, faster.

A.A. Gill’s much-forwarded piece in the Times on Britain’s election is a delightfully readable mixture of wrong-headedness, error, and sputtering confusion, with some sensible ideas and superb acidity mixed in. There is a case to be made that the House of Commons is too big — though reducing it would only mean larger constituencies, and thus an even more tenuous connection between MPs and those constituencies. And there is an even better case to be made that, as the expenses scandal revealed, the Commons has been far too concerned with feathering its own nest.

On the other hand, some of his ideas are revealing in their errors. Gill’s worried about the role of the House of Lords, as if the Lords has really been a vital political issue at any point over the past 99 years. He’s angry that the constituency boundaries give Labour a substantial advantage. Actually, Labour’s built-in advantage is between six and 16 seats: it’s real, but it’s not huge. He’s angry that MPs have to concern themselves with “pointless” local matters like “potholes, traffic lights, arguments with the police and admissions to schools and hospitals,” as if these kinds of concerns are beneath the dignity of democratic politics.

And he’s annoyed that he has “never covered an election in a democracy where candidates have been so reluctant to speak to the electorate through the press.” Of course, one reason for that is that public appearances by Gordon Brown tend to alienate more voters than they attract. Another, more substantial one is that political speech in Britain during an election is heavily controlled by law, a fact that sheds some useful light on the merits of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision.

But when you come right down to it, Gill’s big beef is with Britain itself. He’s wonderfully dismissive of Nick Clegg (“He speaks five languages but can’t say boo in any of them”) and Gordon Brown (“He wrestles with an Old Testament temper, and it’s said that he has no friends. Certainly, none of them have come out to contradict this”), and his dismissal of proportional representation is excellent. Like Edward VIII, he believes that “something must be done,” but he’s not clear exactly what, apart to be sure that Britain’s traditions are at the root of its problems.

This is, frankly, ridiculous. The problem in Britain isn’t too much tradition. It’s the demolition of it. The vast majority of law in Britain is now made in Brussels. Parliament is immeasurably less important to politics than it has been in the past, as evidenced by the American-style debates that Gill praises. The idea that Parliament still works today as it did in Trollope’s age doesn’t bear up under scrutiny for more than a second.

Britain’s fundamental problem is that in a parliamentary system, you need both strong support for the government (otherwise it can be gone in minutes) and strong scrutiny of government (otherwise it’s omnipotent at worst or corrupt at best). The presidentialization of politics means a weakening of parties, and the decline of the Commons means less public scrutiny of government (and of the EU), as well as all manner of petty snouts in the trough. The system is being nibbled away — or gnawed away — at both ends. And predictably, inevitably, hopelessly, the call of the commentators is for more change, faster.

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Uh, Mr. Brown, the Microphone’s Live

Shades of Frank Drebin: Gordon Brown may have sunk his chances in Britain’s general election with an unguarded comment into a microphone he didn’t realize he was still wearing. After campaigning in Rochdale in northern England, he muttered, amid a stream of invective directed at his aides, that 61-year-old Labour supporter Gillian Duffy was a “bigoted woman” for questioning him about the impact on the British job market of immigration from Eastern Europe.

Brown’s since made an in-person apology and e-mailed a fulsome “personal” letter to all Labour activists, but the damage seems to have been done. As one commentator put it, showing a nice grasp of British understatement, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to call voters bigots.”

On one level, of course, it’s possible to have some sympathy for Brown. This is the kind of thing that happens when you’re around microphones so much: few of us would want our every comment recorded and aired in prime time. On another level, as Andrew Rawnsley points out, this is just another example of one of Brown’s more unattractive attributes: his volcanic temper and his eagerness to pour vitriol on his aides and anyone else who gets in his way.

But this isn’t really about Brown’s bad luck or his bed temper. Poll after poll shows that immigration is a central issue in the election, or at least a central concern for many voters. There is every reason to believe that it lies behind the erosion of Labour support in places just like Rochdale, where many — like Mrs. Duffy — believe privately that the Labour elite view their concerns with contempt. Brown’s outburst is evidence that they’re right.

Not that more evidence is needed. Back in October, Andrew Neather, who was closely involved in the making of policy on immigration in the early Labour years, was sufficiently outraged by the televised appearance of Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, to make the following case — and yes, he did think he was making the positive case — for mass migration:

[T]he deliberate policy of ministers from late 2000 until at least February last year, when the Government introduced a points-based system, was to open up the UK to mass migration. …

It’s not simply a question of foreign nannies, cleaners and gardeners — although frankly it’s hard to see how the capital could function without them. Their place certainly wouldn’t be taken by unemployed BNP voters from Barking or Burnley — fascist au pair, anyone? …

I wrote the landmark speech given by then immigration minister Barbara Roche in September 2000, calling for a loosening of controls … the earlier drafts I saw also included a driving political purpose: that mass immigration was the way that the Government was going to make the UK truly multicultural. I remember coming away from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended — even if this wasn’t its main purpose — to rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date. …

But ministers wouldn’t talk about it. In part they probably realised the conservatism of their core voters: while ministers might have been passionately in favour of a more diverse society, it wasn’t necessarily a debate they wanted to have in working men’s clubs in Sheffield or Sunderland.

The only thing more arrogant and out of touch than Neather’s acknowledgement that Britain’s immigration policy was covertly run for the benefit of those who employ foreign nannies was his slap at the “unemployed BNP voters from Barking.” His was the worst possible defense of mass migration into Britain because it was so obviously elitist. And all it really did was display at greater length the contempt that Brown spat at his aides and, unknowingly, into the microphone on Wednesday.

And that is the real political significance of Brown’s open-mike flub: it reminded a significant element in the core Old Labour vote — the vote Labour has to win if it’s to have any chance of playing a role in government-making after May 6 — that quite a bit of New Labour’s leadership quietly detests them and regards them as bigots.

Curiously, the real loser in this may be Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, not Gordon Brown. Neither Clegg nor Brown was ever going to form a government on his own, but Clegg badly needs Labour to do well enough to keep the Tories from winning. Every alienated Labour voter that stays home is another constituency that’s in play for the Tories, and therefore another nail in Clegg’s chances.

Shades of Frank Drebin: Gordon Brown may have sunk his chances in Britain’s general election with an unguarded comment into a microphone he didn’t realize he was still wearing. After campaigning in Rochdale in northern England, he muttered, amid a stream of invective directed at his aides, that 61-year-old Labour supporter Gillian Duffy was a “bigoted woman” for questioning him about the impact on the British job market of immigration from Eastern Europe.

Brown’s since made an in-person apology and e-mailed a fulsome “personal” letter to all Labour activists, but the damage seems to have been done. As one commentator put it, showing a nice grasp of British understatement, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to call voters bigots.”

On one level, of course, it’s possible to have some sympathy for Brown. This is the kind of thing that happens when you’re around microphones so much: few of us would want our every comment recorded and aired in prime time. On another level, as Andrew Rawnsley points out, this is just another example of one of Brown’s more unattractive attributes: his volcanic temper and his eagerness to pour vitriol on his aides and anyone else who gets in his way.

But this isn’t really about Brown’s bad luck or his bed temper. Poll after poll shows that immigration is a central issue in the election, or at least a central concern for many voters. There is every reason to believe that it lies behind the erosion of Labour support in places just like Rochdale, where many — like Mrs. Duffy — believe privately that the Labour elite view their concerns with contempt. Brown’s outburst is evidence that they’re right.

Not that more evidence is needed. Back in October, Andrew Neather, who was closely involved in the making of policy on immigration in the early Labour years, was sufficiently outraged by the televised appearance of Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, to make the following case — and yes, he did think he was making the positive case — for mass migration:

[T]he deliberate policy of ministers from late 2000 until at least February last year, when the Government introduced a points-based system, was to open up the UK to mass migration. …

It’s not simply a question of foreign nannies, cleaners and gardeners — although frankly it’s hard to see how the capital could function without them. Their place certainly wouldn’t be taken by unemployed BNP voters from Barking or Burnley — fascist au pair, anyone? …

I wrote the landmark speech given by then immigration minister Barbara Roche in September 2000, calling for a loosening of controls … the earlier drafts I saw also included a driving political purpose: that mass immigration was the way that the Government was going to make the UK truly multicultural. I remember coming away from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended — even if this wasn’t its main purpose — to rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date. …

But ministers wouldn’t talk about it. In part they probably realised the conservatism of their core voters: while ministers might have been passionately in favour of a more diverse society, it wasn’t necessarily a debate they wanted to have in working men’s clubs in Sheffield or Sunderland.

The only thing more arrogant and out of touch than Neather’s acknowledgement that Britain’s immigration policy was covertly run for the benefit of those who employ foreign nannies was his slap at the “unemployed BNP voters from Barking.” His was the worst possible defense of mass migration into Britain because it was so obviously elitist. And all it really did was display at greater length the contempt that Brown spat at his aides and, unknowingly, into the microphone on Wednesday.

And that is the real political significance of Brown’s open-mike flub: it reminded a significant element in the core Old Labour vote — the vote Labour has to win if it’s to have any chance of playing a role in government-making after May 6 — that quite a bit of New Labour’s leadership quietly detests them and regards them as bigots.

Curiously, the real loser in this may be Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, not Gordon Brown. Neither Clegg nor Brown was ever going to form a government on his own, but Clegg badly needs Labour to do well enough to keep the Tories from winning. Every alienated Labour voter that stays home is another constituency that’s in play for the Tories, and therefore another nail in Clegg’s chances.

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Obama Losing Friends

As the Washington Post editors note, if Nick Clegg manages to emerge from the three-way race as Britain’s next prime minster (or force his way into a coalition government) he may manage to trash what is left of the “special relationship” with the U.S. And this would be a telling consequence of Obama’s smart diplomacy, which largely consists of distancing ourselves from allies. The editors remind us:

Intentionally or not, Mr. Obama has offered support for Mr. Clegg’s argument: His relatively chilly relationship with Mr. Brown, including several perceived snubs, has been a persistent theme of British news coverage. Yet the United States can hardly afford a weaker or less friendly Britain at a time when it is still fighting two wars and when diplomacy with states such as Iran, North Korea and Syria is failing. Other longtime American allies, from Brazil to Turkey, have begun opposing the Obama administration on Iran and other issues.

And this is not only understandable but inevitable. As the U.S. proves to be a less reliable ally, other nations will go looking for more reliable one. As the U.S. proves to be hostile or, at best, indifferent, leaders will cultivate relations with heads of state that don’t ignore or insult them.

The irony is great that Obama had pledged to restore our standing in the world and repair supposedly frayed ties with allies. Frankly, our relationship with key allies hasn’t been this bad in decades and our disloyalty to friends has only whetted the appetite of foes. We are therefore more isolated and the world is quickly becoming more dangerous. One longs for the days of “cowboy diplomacy.”

As the Washington Post editors note, if Nick Clegg manages to emerge from the three-way race as Britain’s next prime minster (or force his way into a coalition government) he may manage to trash what is left of the “special relationship” with the U.S. And this would be a telling consequence of Obama’s smart diplomacy, which largely consists of distancing ourselves from allies. The editors remind us:

Intentionally or not, Mr. Obama has offered support for Mr. Clegg’s argument: His relatively chilly relationship with Mr. Brown, including several perceived snubs, has been a persistent theme of British news coverage. Yet the United States can hardly afford a weaker or less friendly Britain at a time when it is still fighting two wars and when diplomacy with states such as Iran, North Korea and Syria is failing. Other longtime American allies, from Brazil to Turkey, have begun opposing the Obama administration on Iran and other issues.

And this is not only understandable but inevitable. As the U.S. proves to be a less reliable ally, other nations will go looking for more reliable one. As the U.S. proves to be hostile or, at best, indifferent, leaders will cultivate relations with heads of state that don’t ignore or insult them.

The irony is great that Obama had pledged to restore our standing in the world and repair supposedly frayed ties with allies. Frankly, our relationship with key allies hasn’t been this bad in decades and our disloyalty to friends has only whetted the appetite of foes. We are therefore more isolated and the world is quickly becoming more dangerous. One longs for the days of “cowboy diplomacy.”

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