Those prime ministerial debates

Three leaders go head to head

The general election prime ministerial debates are dominating political news reporting at the moment, and this blog has never been ready to leave any bandwagon unjumped. However, unlike all the other partisan commentators, I will not try and judge who might have won and lost the encounter: in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”. (Drew Westen reports, in his book “The political brain”, that the probability that the Clinton impeachment vote after the Monica Lewinsky scandal was not affected by party political considerations – only 5 of over 200 Republicans voted no and only 5 of over 200 Democrats voted yes – is less than 1 in a trillion.)

What I will do, though, is pass comment on some of the issues that came up in the debate, and specifically in the foreign affairs section of the debate last Thursday. (You can watch highlights of it here, or read the full transcript here.)

First, as it was in the debate, Europe. Asked to explain why the EU was a good thing, Gordon Brown resorted to an argument about jobs. The problem with this argument is that the Conservatives are not proposing to withdraw from the single market and, in fact, they argue that there should be deregulation within that single market which they hope will create more jobs. The figure of 3 million jobs linked to EU trade is broadly correct, but the circumstances in which that EU trade is cut off are proposed by nobody, not even UKIP. Membership of the EU means that the whole nation is richer than it would otherwise be – leaving the EU would reduce living standards more generally but would not necessarily bear down much on levels of employment.

Nick Clegg’s argument, fighting crime, was much better. It is hard to identify many jobs that definitively would not exist without the European Union, but the instances of police cooperation that led to arrests are concrete and specific. The fact that the international crimes being uncovered include paedophilia and people trafficking make the case even more compelling. To cap it all, the Conservatives are proposing to withdraw from the European Union’s cooperation in the fight against international terrorism and organised crime. The Lisbon treaty has already extended the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice to new initiatives in these matters and will extend it to existing initiatives in 2014. (Hugo Brady of the CER describes the issue here.) The Tories have indicated that they would not accept the extension of the jurisdiction of the ECJ and would therefore withdraw from institutions such as Europol and the European Arrest Warrant. For a party that wants to be seen as tough on crime, this seems strange.

Secondly, the United Nations. David Cameron suggested that the Liberal Democrats would give up the UK’s seat on the UN Security Council, an argument that Gordon Brown stepped in to squash. (I think that Gordon Brown misunderstood what David Cameron was suggesting when he intervened as he did. It is commonly, and falsely, alleged that the Lisbon treaty abandons the UK seat, but David Cameron was criticising not the Lisbon treaty but the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Given that Gordon Brown elsewhere in the debate tried to paint Liberal Democrat policies as leaving Britain “weak”, it is odd that he should defend them and not criticise them here.)

In the Conservative manifesto, there is a call that Japan, India, Germany, Brazil and African representation should be given permanent seats on the Security Council. Had they been following the UN debate, they would have realised that this has been tried and failed already. Simply extending the number of seats to a few new countries gets the support of those few but offends grievously those countries outside the few which nevertheless had aspirations of their own. Italy, for example, can live with Britain and France having permanent seats, but opposes strongly the award of a seat to Germany if there is not also a seat for Italy, too. The balances within the UN system are too complicated for a simple increase in the number of permanent seats to work. It has been tried and failed.

If there is to be a change in the distribution of permanent seats to reflect the modern distribution of power around the world rather than that prevailing in 1945, then something more imaginative needs to be proposed. Specifically, the seats allocated to Britain and France need to be rethought. They are, if I may coin a phrase, the roadblock to reform.

It is already the case that, under the Lisbon treaty, where the EU has a common policy on a matter, the EU will speak for its member states on the Security Council on that issue. If there is not a common policy, the member states still speak for themselves. The sensible policy would be to go further and say that the EU should also assume a permanent seat on the Security Council, in place of France and Britain, with one proviso. This is that, notwithstanding any decisions within the EU on a foreign policy, the UK and France should still each retain the right to instruct the EU representative on the Security Council to cast a veto, even if the rest of the EU would prefer something different. That way, Britain and France can be persuaded that they will not lose something of apparent value – their vetos – when they gain something of genuine value, a more effective voice in the UN.

A very clever extension of this idea is that France should allow its veto to be used in this way while the UK allows its veto to be used in this way by India. If India wanted to cast a veto, the UK vote would be at its disposal. A UK veto would be cast using the French vote. This reform would need no change in the UN Charter, but would radically change the dynamics of the United Nations and could lead more easily to other, urgently needed reforms. It is a policy that is imaginative and generous: which party will support it?

A third point is the replacement of Trident. It is common ground among the three parties that there should be, after the general election, a strategic defence review. Actually, that statement is not quite true. Two of the three parties have already commenced that review and concluded that it is necessary to replace the Trident submarine-launched nuclear missiles with something similar. Everything else about defence should be thought about again, but not the most expensive single aspect.

A further problem with the commitment to replace Trident with a like-for-like system is that there is a new round of negotiations starting under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The UK is committed under that treaty to seek to reduce its level of nuclear armaments. Arguably, a policy of direct replacement is a violation of that treaty; certainly, it would weaken the UK’s position in those negotiations if it is unable to bargain and make and receive concessions. John Major famously called on his Eurosceptics during the 1997 general election campaign: “Don’t bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British nation”. A policy of like-for-like replacement of Trident would do just that.

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