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WORDS: PAUL WAUGH
Alistair Burt is a great reader. And given his day job, his capacity for absorbing the written word has come in very handy indeed of late.
Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office since 2010, his responsibilities have a truly global reach, stretching in an almost impossible arc over the planet. From North America to North Africa and the Middle East and on to South Asia, a total of 27 countries come under his eagle eye.
“It’s like having 27 books on the go at the same time,” he explains. “We all read three or four books at this same time: this is just 27. You are reading the novel and each day there is a new and different chapter.”
Each of those chapters comes in the form of the diplomatic telegrams or cables from the UK’s extensive network of embassies and consulates across the world. “You read the Dip Tels [diplomatic telegrams or ‘cables’ from embassies] as they come in. Providing you are disciplined and you do read them, then you are keeping yourself topped up every time. Almost every day there is some information coming in and you just add it. And I think most of us work on the basis of osmosis, if you absorb this stuff you gradually build up a sort of hinterland so that you understand it.”
It helps that he finds his regional brief, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring, “utterly fascinating”. “You are almost waiting for the next telegram to come in to tell you the latest turn of events in so many of these places.”
Sitting in a huge office suite that contrasts with his natural modesty, Burt is a mixture of enthusiasm, optimism and quiet ministerial calm. His imperturbability is one of William Hague’s secret weapons in building good relations with MPs, as well as ambassadors and fellow foreign ministers.
Burt helped smooth the way in getting Parliamentary support for taking action in Libya and ‘topped up’ members’ and peers’ knowledge as Egypt, Tunisia and other states were swept up by the extraordinary events of the last few years.
He knows that backbenchers’ worries about Syria are of a different order, but takes the same patient approach in explaining policy in a fast-moving situation. On the vexed issue of arming the Syrian rebels, Burt stresses that the Foreign Secretary believes Parliament “needs to be consulted”. And on the specifics of whether that means a vote on a substantive motion, he is sanguine: “The motion will be up to the House, so in a sense that’s not always necessarily in Government’s control.”
The minister makes a point of being available to all Members and their researchers, regardless of party, to both transmit and receive messages on foreign policy in the regions he covers.
“Part of my role is to be clear about the British interest,” he explains. And on arming the Syrian rebels, he says: “A lot of letters I’m getting from constituents to MPs, that I sign off and answer, are saying ‘where is the British interest in this?’
“To that extent, I would certainly encourage colleagues to be aware of the fact that regional stability matters to the United Kingdom. The risk of Syria going across its borders and affecting more states would have a substantial knock-on effect on UK interests, not only UK citizens that are in the area but also the trade traffic and everything else that goes through the region. A lot of states are now involved so we have a clear interest in the conflict ending and therefore stability being restored to the region.”
Burt adds that Britain has a major interest in Syria’s humanitarian crisis, the biggest of the new century, as well an interest as a Permanent Member of the Security Council, in trying to uphold UN principles.
Yet he also stresses that there is an even more direct impact on the UK. “We have a British interest in the fact that people from all over the world are being drawn into Syria. This includes people from the United Kingdom – they train and they experience conflict on an extremist basis. It cannot be in our interest that this goes on for long because these people return home. And radicalisation is an issue we take very seriously, as indeed does the community to which these individuals are likely to return, and we all share worries about this. The conflict ending sooner rather than later is important to us.
“So all these things are in Britain’s interest. You cannot put a wall around this and say somehow ‘let people get on with it, it doesn’t affect us’. It does and the outcome affects us as well.”
Burt says he’s not surprised by the depth of concern among some colleagues, not least because “it’s clear that that’s a sentiment the public hold”.
“Understandably, people are cautious. Iraq casts a long shadow. And we have to be perfectly honest about that. Confidence and trust was affected in the way in which that was handled.”
But he is equally clear that caution ought not to translate into inaction, especially if the national interest is demonstrated. Despite all the diplomacy, this is a minister who transmits as well as receives. Burt is keen to emphasise that MPs ought to keep an open mind precisely because events on the ground change so quickly. “None of us know where this will end up. And the last couple of years have taught us the law of unintended consequences. Something starts in one state and you just don’t know where it’s going to end.”
As for another key responsibility, the Middle East peace process, the minister visited Israel and Gaza recently and is optimistic about the new impetus John Kerry will bring to the table. He says “expectations remain low and trust on both sides is seriously lacking”, but the new US Secretary of State’s focus provides potentially “the best chance there has been for a very long time” of progress.
Yet Burt is not uncritical of the Netanyahu government. The UK’s ambassador, Matthew Gould, recently gave a speech to Haifa University in which he declared that British Parliamentary opinion on Israel had become more critical, and warned it would get worse over time. Is that an analysis the minister shares?
“Israel continues to have a very staunch set of supporters in Parliament because on the issue of Israel’s existence and right to exist, there is no compromise – that remains very clear,” he says. “But I think that over a 30 year period the impact of the occupation on the mind of the public and MPs has been clear.
“And I think the sense that although Israel remains a David when surrounded by some states or at least some individual terrorist groups that threaten, whilst that remains true, the David and Goliaths as far as the occupied Palestinian territories are concerned has changed on the ground. And my view has always been that Israel in order to retain the moral high ground which it had in terms of responding to those who threatened to destroy its state and eliminate it, its correct response to that mustn’t be undermined by how it is handling the difficult issues of occupation and the like. And colleagues are well aware of some of the issues in relation to that – detention of children and the way in which some of the activities in the territories, settlements, go on.
“Opinion about Israel is no longer monolithic anywhere. Views in the United States are no longer monolithic and nor are views in the United Kingdom. I don’t think it has led to a significant rise in anti-Semitism. I disagree with those Israeli voices who sometimes seek to claim that. I think what you get in the United Kingdom is an honest evaluation of a state’s progress.”
That honesty and frankness is what has won Burt so many friends on all sides of the House over the years. Even before his Foreign Office role formalised his innate diplomacy, he was known for keeping in touch with the backbenches through some very tricky periods. He was Ken Baker’s PPS during his great reform act, a minister under John Major in charge of the Child Support Agency and later PPS to both IDS and Michael Howard when they were leaders of the Opposition. “Most of the jobs I’ve done have required me to be engaged with colleagues, to approach it from the colleague’s point of view.”
And the Burt philosophy is deceptively simple: never forget how the voters see the big picture. “I’m an MP. I will go back to being an MP. Accordingly, I never lose a sense of where I’ve come from and what’s important to me as an MP is still important to me as a minister. And I try and keep that in mind.”
Whether it’s those daily cables from overseas or the letters from closer to home, Burt gets the message. And his ability to read people, not just telegrams, could be crucial to the Government in coming months.
WORDS: TONY GREW
Was it the best spending review ever? George Osborne was in superlative mood when he addressed the House on Wednesday.
William Hague, he proclaimed, “is quite simply the best Foreign Secretary we’ve had in a generation”.
The opposition were in a febrile state, babbling away through much of the 50-minute statement. It took place immediately after PMQs – Ed Miliband and Ed Balls swapped places as the Chancellor got to his feet. At times they mounted a joint heckling operation. They laughed heartily as Mr Osborne said he is “making sure we are all in it together”, but lapsed into silence when he accused their economic policy of having “collapsed into incoherence”.
They were reanimated by the high praise heaped on Mr Hague. Best Foreign Secretary for a generation? Labour MPs made pantomime motions in the direction of Jack Straw.
When the Chancellor moved on to the settlement for the Home Office, the two Eds saw an opportunity for mischief. Like cheeky schoolboys they gleefully barracked the Treasury bench – surely Theresa May is also the best Home Secretary in a generation? What about Theresa?
The tactic worked – after a minute of heckling Mr Osborne deviated from his script. He tartly confirmed her place in the pantheon alongside Mr Hague. Sadiq Khan tried the same thing when the Ministry of Justice was mentioned, but his Labour colleagues seemed to have tired of the joke.
Mr Osborne said the NHS was “much more than the Government’s priority, it is the people’s priority” and would see spending rise. More funding for the integration of NHS and social funding was announced – Labour MPs congratulated Andy Burnham.
For other departments, the cuts kept coming, along with a few decent jokes.
Eric Pickles has agreed a further 10% saving in his resource budget.“The Communities Secretary has set an example to all his colleagues in reducing the size of his department by 60% and abolishing 12 quangos,” Mr Osborne said. “He’s a model of lean government.” Mr Pickles beamed.
Michael Gove was described as “brilliant”. Ed Balls queried from a sedentary position whether he is now “the best ever” Education Secretary.
In his reply, Balls turned to a children’s TV programme that went off air in 1992 to illustrate his opinion of Osborne.“He said we’re all in this together but then he gave a huge tax cut to millionaires!” he crowed.
“Failed tests! Broken promises! His friends call him George, the President calls him Jeffrey but to everyone else he’s just Bungle, Mr Speaker! Even Zippy on the front bench can’t stop smiling, Mr Speaker!
“Calm down Zippy, calm down!” Zippy, aka the PM, laughed. His desire for the end of Punch and Judy politics remains unfulfilled.
WORDS: GISELA STUART
The future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent is at the centre of political debate. Soon the Liberal Democrats will produce their ‘alternatives review’. Last week, Philip Hammond re-affirmed the Conservative Party’s adherence to the Trident system. It’s therefore reasonable to ask: what would a Labour Government do?
Labour’s position of ‘wait and see the results of the Liberal Democrat review’, is reasonable for an opposition. It‘s also right to argue that in an uncertain and dangerous world, and one of squeezed MoD budgets, any credible alternative to a submarine-based ballistic missile platform must meet the criteria of capability and cost.
It’s unlikely the Liberal Democrat review will produce a detailed ‘compelling list of alternatives’ and offer a credible alternative platform to Trident. The most probable outcome is a recommendation for only two successor submarines. This would end the UK’s continuous-at-sea posture (CASD), which guarantees one nuclear-armed submarine patrolling at any one time.
Mooring two nuclear-armed submarines in Faslane to be wheeled out in a crisis would make them a sitting duck. They would be detectable and targetable, which would thus nullify the submarines’ ability to respond to any attack, the ‘second strike’ capabilities, on which their effectiveness as a deterrent hinges. Mines could be placed in the Gare Loch or in the Clyde, preventing the submarines from leaving Faslane and making them extremely vulnerable.
Nick Clegg and others say that the UK’s deterrence posture is an outdated Cold War relic with scant strategic value. But nuclear proliferation and asymmetry in international relations since the early 1990s have made the world a more, not less, dangerous place. President Obama has recognised this. He said in 2009 in Prague that “the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those [nuclear] weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up”.
Would a reduced successor fleet save money? Seventy per cent of the annual running costs of the deterrent are fixed, so procuring two boats instead of four saves little money. Building two fewer boats doesn’t make proportionate savings in the cost of the overall programme as it is effectively the capability to design and build nuclear armed submarines that is procured. Most of the costs of the programme are spread throughout, regardless of how many boats are ordered. The limited savings that could be made would not be accrued until the 2020s. Even then a successor programme to the Astute hunter-killer submarine class would have to be brought forward to maintain an ‘industrial drumbeat’ at the BAE factory in Barrow and within the complex supply chain. Indeed, the large number of highly skilled jobs that would be created by a Vanguard successor programme has been recognised by Unite, GMB and the CSEU, who have all called for Trident replacement.
Would downgrading the UK’s deterrent posture advance the cause of nuclear disarmament? Obama’s Berlin speech last week has shown the UK, at this stage, to be largely irrelevant. The US and Russia – who between them own over 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads – need to embark on substantial bilateral nuclear reductions above and beyond those detailed in the New Start treaty. Only once this is achieved can other nuclear states, like the UK, be brought into a multilateral process towards ‘Global Zero’, a world free from nuclear weapons. It is far better for the UK to wait and maintain its influence at the top table of the NPT, the UN and the NATO Nuclear Planning Group until the time is right to disarm as part of a multilateral process.
Both the Tories and the Lib Dems have made the future of the nuclear deterrent a plaything of Coalition. Labour has not played party politics with the nuclear deterrent. I hope this continues and that the Labour Party pledges its support for a ballistic missile-armed submarine platform based on continuous-at-sea deterrence. A part-time deterrent of the kind most likely to be suggested by the Liberal Democrats would make the world a more dangerous place, and would hardly be a price worth paying for the minimal savings it would yield. And as for the Tories, if they are serious they could make the decision on Main Gate now. Why don’t they?
from: Brooks Newmark
sent: 18 June 2013 10:51
I have spent several years travelling throughout the Middle East and have always believed in the importance of engagement. Over the past seven years I have met with President Assad one to one a number of times. He always talked about political reform and I was keen to encourage him down this path. When the civil war started I met him once again and stressed the importance of ending the violence and returning to a path of political reform. Despite a similar message from others, including Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, Assad has only responded with more violence against his own people. Like you, I wish for a negotiated end to this civil war. However, Assad has no incentive to come to the negotiating table. He believes he can win. Doing nothing is not an option. Assad will simply continue to slaughter his own people resulting in hundreds of thousands more dead. However, neither is getting fully engaged in a hot war an option. After Iraq and Afghanistan I do not believe there is much public support for another military intervention. Therefore supplying better weapons to the opposition is the least worst option. This is what the Syrian opposition want. They do not want our direct involvement on the ground. They say give us the arms and we will do our own fighting. All options are bad but option three is the least bad option. Only when Assad realises he can’t win will he come to the negotiating table.
from: Sir Menzies Campbell
Sent: 19 June 2013 14:16
Like you, I have taken a particular interest in the Middle East and visited several countries in the region, including Syria, although I have never had a one to one with President Assad. I agree with you that there are no easy options or elegant solutions for Syria but if the purpose of supplying arms to the opposition is to make Assad change course, where is the evidence that it will do so? The umbilical cord between Moscow and Damascus will not fail for a lack of weapons. So long as the President can rely on the unqualified support of Mr Putin and the supply of weapons that accompanies it, what possible incentive does he have to behave differently? The key to resolving the present crisis is held by Russia. So long as Russia cannot be persuaded that its interests are being profoundly damaged by its policy, Assad is impervious. That there is no appetite for military intervention is no argument for providing more weapons to the opposition. In saying “doing nothing is not an option”, as you do, you seem to subscribe to that most dangerous contribution to any debate about foreign policy: “something must be done”. There are better options, some of which have tentatively emerged from the G8 – bolstering the humanitarian effort, putting all our political weight behind the proposed Geneva peace conference, continuing to engage directly with Russia, and discouraging Israel from provocative intervention. These are not a “silver bullet”, individually or collectively, but they have the virtue that they are steps we will almost certainly have to take in any event.
from: Brooks Newmark
Sent: 19 June 2013 18:01
I do not disagree with your desire to make sure no stone is left unturned when it comes to engaging with all parties in this conflict, including Iran. Indeed, the election of the moderate Rouhani presents an opportunity to press the reset button on our relationship with Tehran. However, after over two years of trying to seek an accommodation with Russia through the UN, we have made no progress. Indeed Russia has sent more military advisors, more weapons and more money to support the Assad regime. The result has been more deaths and more destruction to what was once a beautiful country with a rich heritage. At what point do you say enough is enough? Or do you simply turn your back on the Sunni majority and let the slaughter continue, with no price to be paid by the protagonists, Bashar Assad and his sponsors Russia and Iran? Let us not forget, this civil war began with peaceful demonstrations that were met with the butchering, rape and mutilation of protestors. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is meant to protect individuals from such “barbarous acts”. Furthermore, if memory serves me correctly, during the Bosnian War Douglas Hurd said we should not arm the Bosnian Muslims for fear of “creating a level playing field”. Where would Bosnia or indeed the Balkans be today if we had not intervened? Lifting the arms embargo and supporting the legitimate opposition lead by General Idriss, after two years of no progress with talks is the right step in order to put additional diplomatic pressure on Assad, Russia and Iran in the run up to Geneva II. Any absence of such pressure will signal to the regime “please continue slaughtering your own people with impunity”. Yes we must continue to engage and encourage dialogue, but let us do so by giving the opposition the ability to come to the negotiating table a little more on equal terms.
From: Sir Menzies Campbell
Sent: 21 June 2013 10:58
I must certainly agree with you that the election of Rouhani in Iran does open up the possibility of resetting our relationship with Tehran. I would be for inviting Iran and all other countries bordering Syria (including Israel!) to join the proposed conference in Geneva. All the conference invitees should agree a moratorium on arms supplies of any kind to Syria.
Your cri de coeur about saying “enough is enough”, however well intentioned, is misplaced. Do you really think that supplying arms to the opposition will decrease the rape and mutilation you refer to which already scars Syria? Do you really believe that all those who might receive arms supplies will behave according to the principles of the Geneva Convention? The US flooded Afghanistan with weapons to equip the opposition to resist the Soviet invasion and then found these very weapons being used against them after 9/11.
I was on the Defence Select Committee at the time of Bosnia. Syria is no Bosnia. Bosnia never became a proxy war between the US and Russia, which is a real risk in Syria. And NATO ultimately intervened on the ground. NATO will not do the same in Syria.
One last point – I repeat, where is the evidence that Assad will change course because of “diplomatic pressure” if certain elements of the opposition get better weapons?
From: Brooks Newmark
Sent: 21 June 2013 19:25
We both agree there needs to be a negotiated settlement with all interested parties around the table. We just disagree on how we get there. Your strategy is more of the same which, after two years, has got us nowhere. You say “where is the evidence that Assad will change course because of ‘diplomatic pressure’ if certain elements of the opposition get better weapons?” Actually we don’t know. But what we do know is that while Assad believes he can win he will not negotiate. So we must try something else. If we pursue your line of logic nothing will change except of course the bodies will pile up as the defenceless silent majority continue to get slaughtered. Your point of reference is Iraq and Afghanistan. Mine is Rwanda and Bosnia. Given we will not directly intervene we should at least support the SOC, General Idriss and the silent majority. All options are bad options. I just believe mine is more likely to get us to the negotiating table more quickly.
From: Sir Menzies Campbell
Sent: 24 June 2013 14:59
We will best and most quickly get to the negotiating table in Geneva if we make common cause with Russia and the USA following the Kerry/Lavrov initiative. The flaw of the “arm the opposition” agreement is that Russia will not let Assad be disadvantaged by anything the UK, France and the USA might do. That may be hard to swallow but it is the reality. The risk must also be that if arms supplies to the opposition do not achieve the results you propose, the pressure will be to supply yet more sophisticated arms and thus ratchet up the conflict even further. I have explained why I don’t regard Bosnia as a parallel but neither do I consider Rwanda to be one either. The gates of hell were opened in Rwanda by the unwise and unnecessary withdrawal of a peace-keeping truce by the United Nations which still haunts the organisation.
Will supplying arms to the opposition stop the conflict or even reduce it? My answer is no. I don’t like the answer but this is a time for analysis and not emotion.
WORDS: IAIN MARTIN
Things have changed a bit since Gordon Brown’s time as Chancellor. It isn’t all that long ago, but already it seems like a different world. Back then, Budget days and spending reviews were measured almost exclusively in terms of largesse and the number of goodies being dispensed. Of course, there would be talk of prudence, prudence with a purpose and iron discipline. Inevitably, a few days later there might be a row about hidden tax rises or thresholds, or a brief fuss when it was noticed by the Sunday newspapers that the Chancellor had slipped in some enormous change and only mentioned it in the very vaguest of terms.
But usually, on the day itself, the Labour benches would go wild, whooping and hollering when the Chancellor announced all manner of delights. He sat down, their cheers ringing in his ears. Then Tony Blair would grin that grin of his and look across the Despatch Box, as if to say to the Tory front-bench: go on, get out of that one. The Conservatives would do their best to respond, of course, although they tended to have a hunted, depressed look about them. They relied, in the days before David Cameron, on making generalised predictions that this would all end badly, although it never seemed to happen. Growth rattled along, house prices rocketed and British banks boomed.
In the hours and days after the Chancellor’s spending statements to the House, the good news would then cascade down through the departments in a vast media briefing operation co-ordinated by the Treasury. My particular experience was of the Scottish Government, then termed the Scottish Executive. It was Labour-controlled in alliance with the Liberal Democrats, which shows how long ago this was. Scottish Ministers from Westminster and the Scottish Parliament would hold briefings in which they hailed the generosity of Gordon Brown and explained where they would spend the extra money. The overwhelming sense, particularly before the Iraq War in 2003, was of epic political hegemony and New Labour domination stretching far into the distance.
Those days are long gone. On this occasion, I do not make the point to blame anyone involved. I mention it merely to illustrate how suddenly basic assumptions about what lies just a few years ahead can be upended.
This autumn will mark the fifth anniversary of the British side of the banking crisis. Everything since then, every budget or spending statement, under both major parties has been conditioned by that extraordinary event and the deep recession that followed. Of course, in his Spending Review this week George Osborne was talking up the prospects of the UK for recovery, but there are all sorts of ominous signs, with the unwinding of QE, the bursting of the bond bubble and a credit crunch in China.
No wonder voters, and politicians, are extremely weary of the gloom. There has been no comparable period in the modern era. This extended downer, with falling living standards, has been going on for a very long time now. Five years is an epic stretch even by normal political standards, and yet it may not be until towards the end of the decade – which will be 10 years after the crisis – that it will really feel as though the country is properly clear of it.
But just as the boom did not last for ever, neither will the bust. And when there is a shift – when growth is strongly established for several years, living standards recover and debt is starting to come down as a percentage of GDP – it will create opportunities for new leaders who can cultivate a sense of optimism and creativity. The British, and those who represent them in Parliament, will be sick by then not just of austerity, but of the entire post-crash mentality and the personalities involved. Brown and Blair were associated with a particular period and then discarded. Eventually, perhaps in just a few years, the current crop will be too.