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"The British Prime Minister Is Coming to America"

Prime Minister, David Cameron Prime Minister David Cameron at his constituency office in Witney, Oxfordshire, Britain - 20 Jan 2012.
AP Photo

"The British Prime Minister Is Coming to America"

Op-Ed, Newsweek

March 12, 2012

Author: Niall Ferguson, Member of the Board, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

 

Reading David Cameron’s biography prepares you for a character out ofDownton Abbey. His paternal grandmother was a direct descendant of King William IV, so technically he is a fifth cousin of the queen. His maternal grandfather was a baronet. His father’s ancestral home is Blairmore House in Aberdeenshire. He was educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he was a member of the notoriously toffee-nosed Bullingdon Club. His father-in-law is another baronet.

Yet when you actually meet Cameron he’s anything but a throwback to the Edwardian era. Disarmingly free of snobbery, he is Dave to his inner circle, hates wearing a suit and tie, and is as happy watching 30 Rock as Downton Abbey on TV. The only clue that Cameron is to the manner born is the seemingly effortless way he shoulders the burdens of power. He must be the first prime minister in history to look younger after nearly two years in office.

Cameron is in fact five years younger than his American counterpart. But when he meets President Obama in Washington this week, the age difference will look more like 10 years. Power has visibly aged Barack Obama. It has rejuvenated Cameron.

When I meet him in 10 Downing Street shortly before his U.S. trip, he is looking fit and relaxed—the very antithesis of the man whose portrait glares down from his office wall. Winston Churchill overate, guzzled champagne and brandy, smoked Cuban cigars, and liked nothing better than to work into the small hours of the morning. Cameron’s lifestyle could hardly be more different.

“I go to bed quite early, and I get up quite early,” he says. “I’m at my kitchen table doing my box [of official papers] at 5:45 a.m. My grandmother always said it’s the hours before midnight that count. My hours are completely the opposite of Churchill’s.” He plays tennis every Sunday and goes for a run through Hyde Park once a week. Only rarely do the pressures of the job disturb his sleep.

And yet, for all their differences in temperament and lifestyle, Cameron clearly identifies strongly with Churchill. “It does still thrill me when I walk in and see the Cabinet Room [which adjoins his office] and think of the days in 1940 when Britain stood alone against Hitler.” Last December, when Cameron refused to sign on to the latest European plan to rescue the euro, many Conservatives saw it as an act of Churchillian defiance. The parallel is not one Cameron disavows.

In another respect, too, he and Churchill are kindred spirits. It is often forgotten that Churchill began his career as a Conservative, switched to the Liberals in 1904, then returned to the Conservatives in 1925. Cameron has often described himself—in a phrase that sounds oxymoronic to American ears—as a “liberal conservative.” (Think Rockefeller Republican.)

Revealingly, Cameron defines his version in terms of foreign policy (though he could equally well reference the fact that he leads a Conservative-Liberal coalition): “You get the instincts of a conservative—skeptical and worried about grand plans to remake the world—but [you are] liberal in that you want to see the spread of democracy and rights and freedoms that we enjoy here.”

It is in the realm of foreign policy that Cameron is most obviously Churchillian. Like Tony Blair, he is drawn to the idea of military intervention where human rights as well as national interest are at stake. It was he, not President Obama, who pressed for military intervention in Libya last year. And while Obama was careful to occupy the back seat during the NATO air campaign that helped topple the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Cameron was up front, fighting with Nicolas Sarkozy for control of the steering wheel and gas pedal.

I ask Cameron why he is not pushing equally hard for military intervention in Syria. After all, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has now killed significantly more of its people than Gaddafi killed of his. Cameron acknowledges that he is “immensely frustrated that we can’t do more in Syria.” True, “in Libya there was a United Nations resolution and support from the Arab League for action,” whereas in the Syrian case there is neither. But he doesn’t sound wholly persuaded by these arguments for nonintervention. “My impulse is that I want us to do more,” he says emphatically. “I think we need to...shake the system...We need to help the opposition more”—and in particular the Free Syrian Army, which is now fighting a civil war against the far-better-armed forces loyal to Assad.

When I ask if he thinks a “coalition of the willing” could act in Syria without a U.N. resolution, his reply is remarkably forceful. “I think Kosovo proved that there are occasions when your responsibility to protect...to save lives, to stop slaughter, to act in a way that is both morally right but also in your own national interest—that there are occasions when you can do that without a U.N. resolution...I’ve always thought it odd the argument that because there’s a Russian veto [at the U.N.], suddenly all the other moral arguments are washed away. I don’t believe that.”

That sounds to me a lot like an argument for intervention in Syria, even without U.N. authorization.

On the question of Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear-armed power, Cameron is less hawkish. He is opposed to unilateral Israeli airstrikes against Iran’s suspected nuclear facilities. “I count myself a good friend of Israel,” he says, “but good friends should be candid.” His preference is to go further down “the road of sanctions and pressure.” But if the Iranians persist with their efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon, then “nothing is off the table.”

Repeatedly since Churchill’s day, British prime ministers have pressed American presidents to take military action, like the pugnacious little brother, egging on the more laidback big brother. Churchill did it to Roosevelt. Thatcher famously did it to a “wobbly” George H.W. Bush. His son didn’t need much encouragement from Tony Blair, but he got it. Is it now David Cameron’s turn to goad Barack Obama onto the warpath?

If so, Cameron may have an ally in Hillary Clinton. The day before our meeting, the two had been attending a summit on Somalia. Ever since the debacle of 1993—immortalized in Black Hawk Down—the U.S. has been acutely nervous about Somalia. As Cameron acknowledges, the war-torn, famine-ravaged country is like “the jigsaw puzzle where somebody’s lost the box and thrown away some of the pieces.” Yet he believes that he and Clinton are now in agreement about the need for an international effort to stabilize Somalia. (As he puts it: “We could have written each other’s speeches” on the subject.) In true liberal-conservative fashion, the case for intervention is both humanitarian and self-interested. Left to its fate, Somalia is not only a deathtrap for its people but a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism.

If Cameron is eager to deepen Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States, his approach to the European Union is almost exactly the opposite. At the end of last year, he left other European leaders thunderstruck with his dramatic refusal to agree to their proposed new treaty, designed to end the crisis in the European Monetary Union.

In some ways, Cameron’s Euro-skepticism is nothing new. Ever since British entry into what was then the European Common Market 40 years ago, London has had an ambivalent relationship to Brussels. Typically, Britain opted not to give up the pound when the euro was created.

Yet the novelty about Cameron is that he does not pretend, as his predecessors did, that Britain can be out of the euro but still “at the heart of Europe.” For Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, there is a “remorseless logic” to the continental European predicament: having created a monetary union, the continentals now have little option but to set up a federal fiscal system, complete with pooled revenues, transfers between states, and jointly issued euro bonds. Fine, say the Brits. Have your Federal Republic of Europe. But count us out.

At Davos in January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel defined her vision of Europe’s future in classically federal terms. Does Cameron have an alternative vision? “My vision,” he replies, “is of a Europe that stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals, that includes Turkey, that is a vital, thriving single market of innovation and invention...A continent of great political will...But it wouldn’t be a federal state. It wouldn’t be a country called ‘Europe.’”

I ask him if he can imagine the U.K. ultimately leaving the EU. He bridles: “I don’t think that will happen, because Britain has already made its choice”—meaning the choice to be an active member of the European Union but not of the European Monetary Union, playing a role in decisions about foreign and trade policy but leaving monetary and fiscal policy to the others. Whether the continental Europeans will tolerate that semidetached status remains to be seen.

The last time a man as young as Cameron became prime minister was in 1812. The Earl of Liverpool is not fondly remembered in the history books. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, he presided over a period of painful spending cuts that were associated with high unemployment and popular unrest.

Some might say Cameron is in danger of repeating history. While American politicians merely talk about deficit reduction, Cameron’s government has already raised taxes and is poised to make drastic reductions in public spending. According to the nonpartisan Institute of Fiscal Studies, the planned cuts are on a scale not seen in the U.K. since World War II.

Even before most of the cuts take effect, however, the British economy looks to be in trouble. The GDP shrank by 0.2 percent in the last quarter of 2011; the unemployment rate is now 8.4 percent—the highest rate in more than 15 years. With the economy in a double-dip recession, tax revenues are down and spending on welfare is up. Result: progress on reducing the deficit has been negligible. Last month Moody’s threatened to strip the U.K. of its AAA status.

From an American vantage point, this is worrying. For regardless of who wins the presidential election in November, the nation is on course for comparably sweeping budget cuts in 2013. If Britain has been test-driving austerity for us, we have a bumpy ride ahead.

Cameron is unfazed. Given the parlous fiscal position he inherited, fiscal stimulus was not an option. Indeed, any policy short of austerity would have risked the kind of bond-market revolt that has sunk continental economies like Greece and Portugal. “The idea that the answer to a debt crisis is more debt,” Cameron insists, “is wrong.”

The gentleman is not for turning. “It is a difficult path, but a path the country has to take...We have a very clear multiannual plan to get on top of debt, deficit, and public spending...But we’ve accompanied that with an independent and very active monetary policy. We are fiscal conservatives but monetary activists. I think that is the right way round.”

Besides hoping that the independent Bank of England will continue to print money, does he have any other options to boost growth? The most he will concede is tax reform—but responsible tax reform, not reckless tax cuts. As he puts it: “I want to see where the money’s coming from” to pay for any reductions in tax.

Perhaps the really remarkable thing about Cameronian austerity is that he and his government still remain relatively popular despite it. I ask how he explains this. “We have a mandate for taking tough decisions,” he replies. “You’ve got to convince people that it’s necessary, that it’s fair, and that at the end of it...it’s worthwhile.” His aim is to rebalance the finance-dominated U.K. economy, and, in particular, to see a revival of British manufacturing. “We’re not just a bunch of accountants getting the books right.”

With the next general election not due until 2015, Cameron is confident not just of winning, but of increasing the Conservative vote by enough to dispense with his Liberal coalition partners. Given that the economy is forecast to improve after this year, that is far from unrealistic.

So if the U.K. is doing today what the U.S. will have to do tomorrow, does Cameron have any advice for the president? “What we’ve found here is that having a [multiyear] plan is right...but also there are some elements of public spending that are so large, like public-sector pay pensions and welfare, that you have to address those.” In other words, don’t imagine you can solve the deficit problem without tackling big-ticket items, which in the U.S. means Medicare and Social Security.

But Cameron is not in Washington to lecture Obama on the costs and benefits of fiscal austerity. The main purpose of this trip is clearly to ensure that the U.S. and the U.K. are singing from the same hymn sheet on the Middle East.

The trouble is: it’s the week after Super Tuesday. The American media are 99.9 percent focused on the Republican Party’s struggle to find a presidential candidate. Compared with the likes of Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, Cameron’s brand of liberal conservatism comes from another planet. The reality is that Cameron probably has more in common with Barack Obama than with any of these guys.

Yet Cameron’s visit is far from irrelevant. Because, even as the Republicans limp uncertainly toward the nomination of Mitt Romney, a more deadly race is underway in the Middle East. In part, it is an arms race, with Iran aiming to establish itself as a nuclear-armed power and Israel intent on stopping it. But it is also a race to establish who rules in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Encouraged by the outcome of intervention in Libya, Cameron would like it to be the old firm: America plus Britain. Still smarting from the difficulties of getting out of Iraq, Obama will take some convincing. But if we don’t sort out Syria—not to mention Somalia—who will?

Will Americans warm to Cameron the way they did to Blair? Young, bold, and articulate, the two prime ministers have much in common. They also share the handicap that Britain is no longer the economic and military force it once was. In the past 10 years, according to the IMF, the U.K. economy has been overtaken by both China and Brazil. Its defense budget has been slashed.

For many Americans, Britain is a quaint has-been, with a snobbish ruling elite and riotous underclass—not forgetting rebellious Celts on its periphery. I ask Cameron about his decision to call the Scottish nationalists’ bluff by giving Scotland a referendum on independence. Does he fear presiding over the breakup of Britain? “I very much hope not,” he says.

“My mother’s family were Llewellyns from Wales, my father’s family were Camerons from Scotland, I’ve got a healthy dose of English blood [and] a little bit of Portuguese Jew” (his great-great-grandfather was the Jewish banker Emile Levita). This “good mixture,” he says, makes him “a classic citizen of the United Kingdom.”

Despite his upper-class origins, then, David Cameron’s dream is not a return to the England of Downton Abbey. It’s an authentically British dream—of a multiethnic United Kingdom, close to but not subsumed by Europe, allied with but not subservient to the United States.

Churchill would surely have approved.


 

For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Ferguson, Niall. "The British Prime Minister Is Coming to America." Newsweek, March 12, 2012.

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