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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.

7 comments for: Constance Compton: The Party of foreign policy competence

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