We admit defeat. This site isn’t usually shy of expressing a view on the issue of the day: we have this in common with other journals, MPs – and many of our readers. But we have to admit that the Huawei decision which Boris Johnson is set to make has us stumped.
ConHome is in no position to know whether or not a distinction can really be made between core and non-core elements of the network. Or, to put it more plainly, if the Chinese company can be let into the second but kept out of the first. We don’t have the technical knowledge – and doubt whether the politicians who sound off on the matter one way or the other do so either.
So the site has to proceed by hunch, prejudice – in what we hope is the best sense of the word – and above all by experience. Are the security services and the top echelons of the civil service right to say that there is nothing to fear?
The Huawei question is in many respects unlike the HS2 one that we attempted to answer yesterday. But we are nagged by the uneasy feeling that in one respect they have something in common. Namely, that a big chunk of political and administrative capital has already been spent on both projects. And that once such investment has been made, it is only human nature to double down.
This may be especially so if there is no alternative technology to hand, and Ministers have promises to keep about a 5G rollout. Furthermore, the politicians, security service leaders and civil servants who will make the decision could be long gone by the time any security breach becomes evident.
What we certainly know is that they have no coherent agreed collective answer to the question: what’s Britain’s view of China? To some, it is an opponent: see the pieces on this site to that effect on Huawei by Tom Tugendhat and Bob Seely, who are competing to become the next Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. To others, it is not: remember George Osborne promising a “golden decade” for Anglo-Chinese relations?
What happens to a country that can’t make up its mind? It drifts. And Chinese involvement in Britain’s national infrastructure is a sign of that irresolution. Westminster and Whitehall may not see the problem until both grasp that it is one.
Either way, it is alarming that the Government is asking America for an alternative that will deliver 5G as quickly and at no more cost that the Chinese company, and that none seems to be to hand. Ultimately, Number Ten seems to have decided that ultimately the Huawei bird in the hand is worth the Trump trade deal in the bush (assuming that it must have one or the other, which may well not be the case).
Our monthly panel of Conservative Party members has made up its mind. Almost eight out of ten believe that the company should be barred from participation in the project. Behind that view will lurk an instinct: that western liberal democracy and China’s one-party system are competing for the future. Which is an answer to the question we posed early about Britain’s view of China – one which the British state itself is unwilling to confront.