The Fall of David Cameron

History News Network

Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who dominated British politics in the 1960s, once said that a week is a long time in politics. The meaning of his famous remark is that political fortunes can change dramatically in a short time. Just one year after winning the May 2015 general election against the odds, Prime Minister David Cameron has suffered a spectacular fall. He is out of power and out of politics, having stood down as an MP with immediate effect on September 12, less than three months after he resigned as prime minister.

Cameron had been leader of the Conservative Party for ten years, and prime minister for six, all but one in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. When he appeared to be at the pinnacle of his career, having won a majority in the May 2015 general election, his luck ran out. Now, he is yesterday’s man. Much of Cameron’s legacy is being dismantled by his successor Theresa May. His record in office is under critical examination. His admirers are dwindling.

Two days after Cameron’s resignation as an MP, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a highly critical report. It held him “ultimately responsible” for the collapse of the Libyan state, and the rise of ISIS after the Anglo-French military campaign with American help in 2011.

Remember, then Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy were leading champions of military action in Libya, citing the principle of “responsibility to protect” – a principle endorsed by the UN Security Council as a means of last resort to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amid determined public calls for a western-led campaign against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a reluctant President Obama gave in. The result was a NATO campaign which led to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. Obama regrets the bungled Libyan intervention now.

The parliamentary committee’s report said the government of Prime Minister Cameron neither had accurate intelligence nor a coherent strategy for Libya after Gaddafi’s removal. The result, according to the report, was political and economic collapse, tribal warfare, widespread human rights abuses and the rise of ISIS in North Africa, fuelled by weapons which the Libyan army abandoned.

The initial objective of the Libyan campaign was limited to protect the besieged civilian population in Benghazi, protesting against Gaddafi’s rule when the Arab Spring swept across the region. After that objective was secured within a short time, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report concluded, the United Kingdom “drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.” It became “exclusively focused on military intervention.” The decision was taken in France; the United Kingdom simply followed.

Insofar as Britain’s recent military interventions abroad are concerned, there are parallels between David Cameron and Tony Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007. Blair was heavily criticised in the Chilcot Inquiry, published in July 2016, for acquiescing with President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. The parliamentary inquiry into Libya found that David Cameron went along with the decision-making in France, with calamitous results.

Tony Blair, with George W. Bush, must bear the ultimate responsibility for the collapse of the Iraqi state, the emergence of al-Qaida in Iraq and more recently ISIS. Likewise, the parliamentary inquiry, in its final analysis, held David Cameron responsible for the disintegration of Libya. The policy created conditions for the birth of ISIS in North Africa, and for massive waves of refugees arriving in Europe. UK actions in Libya were described as “ill-conceived” by the inquiry chairman Crispin Blunt, a member of Cameron’s own Conservative Party. Cameron himself refused to testify. He said he was too busy to appear.

But the reason for Cameron’s fall from power was not Libya. He was a tactical, rather than visionary, leader, not able to stand up to dissenters in his party. He failed to secure a majority in the 2010 general election, and had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party. In 2015, he won by a small majority in parliament on a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union.

His pledge was meant to placate the anti-EU faction in his Conservative party, and to counter the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage, a vehemently anti-EU and anti-immigration politician. Cameron’s lurch to the right on issues such as immigration, and his attempts to secure concessions from the EU, were tactics to maintain control, win the referendum, and stay in the European Union. He was over-confidence that he was a winner, and would prevail in the referendum. It proved costly.

Cameron’s predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, had resisted calls for a referendum. In the 1980s, Thatcher’s frequent public arguments with the rest of the European Union over British contributions, and her assertions of national sovereignty, concealed divisions in the Conservative Party. Her successor John Major (1990-1997) often clashed with party rebels over EU membership, but would not contemplate another referendum. Major insisted that the membership issue was resolved in the 1973 vote. Cameron lost the gamble, because what was meant to be an electoral exercise about the EU became a vote on a wide range of policies under his prime ministership.

Now that Cameron has left the political scene, it is for Prime Minister Theresa May to manage the aftermath. But the recent history of the United Kingdom demonstrates that when a prime minister has dominated national politics for years, the tenure of their successor is difficult and short. James Callaghan (1976–1979) survived in office for three years before his defeat by Margaret Thatcher. John Major had a difficult time in office before his defeat in 1997 by Tony Blair’s Labour Party. And after Blair’s resignation, Prime Minister Gordon Brown managed to remain in office for three years before he was defeated in 2010.

The next general election in the United Kingdom is due in 2020. Whether Prime Minister Theresa May’s government can last until then is an open question.

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Mali and the Return of the “Long War”

CounterPunch, January 30, 2013

images-1The bloodshed at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria has brought into focus the deteriorating situation in north and west Africa and the role of France in the region. The rhetoric of the long war against terrorism is back. So is Western military involvement in yet another region. About fifty of the more than eighty people killed in the Algerian siege were foreign and local Arab hostages, captured in the country’s vast southeastern desert.

On the surface, it was difficult to agree with the Algerian government’s assertion, greeted by reluctant nods in Western capitals, that the military operation by Algeria’s special forces was a success. All except a few militants were also killed. But they almost certainly went there to die, and kill as many of their hostages as they could to gain worldwide publicity.

Escape across open desert when the Algerian military and others had their eyes on the besieged gas facility was a forlorn hope. The Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sallal, said that among the hostage-takers were Canadian citizens, and the militant group had help of inside knowledge. Canadian passports were found on two charred bodies, and Britain’s Channel 4 News reported there being gunmen also from Algeria, as well as Mali, Niger, and Libya, from where they drove to the remote facility some fifty miles away. These emerging facts contradicted the British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s denial that Western intervention in Libya had fueled the spread of extremism in north and west Africa.

William Hague, indeed the British and French governments, are in a difficult position. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan rejected the notion that events in Algeria had nothing to do with Mali to the South and Libya to the east. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya led to the collapse of his armed forces, and made large numbers of soldiers of Tuareg tribes, who had fought for Gaddafi, leave for neighboring countries including Mali, where a Tuareg rebellion was under way. We have seen this phenomenon before, in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Now it is unfolding in North Africa and the Sahel region, dry and barren, with increasing ferocity.

Just as Afghanistan was a United States-led venture from the beginning, Britain and France were particularly aggressive Western players in Libya, ultimately pushing President Barack Obama to join the campaign with U.S. military power to overthrow Col. Gaddafi. We saw France under Nicolas Sarkozy, and Britain under David Cameron, take the lead in political terms in Libya, with Obama “leading from behind.” Arrangements of this kind suit Obama, for he can create the illusion that America is not a unilateralist superpower like it was under George W. Bush. In fact no military venture can possibly succeed without U.S. approval, indeed participation in some form. The distinction is academic.

Francois Hollande

Francois Hollande

The leaders of France and Britain have an uncanny resemblance in their passion for war. When they were not  in power, Hollande and Cameron appeared reluctant supporters at best, and at times critical of their leaders’ enthusiasm for foreign military expeditions. Now, as they struggle with acute economic difficulties and mass discontent at home, Hollande and Cameron have been quick to assume the status of war leaders.

The French-led intervention, with growing British involvement, in Mali, and possibly in other failing states, risks a scenario similar to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Both France and Britain seek to entice the United States to take on an increasingly bigger military role. Awareness of history and present interests in the region are important to avoid naïve acceptance of official rhetoric of the long or generational war. France is the ex-colonial power of Mali, and Britain’s young prime minister shows the old imperial temperament long after the British Empire was lost.

David Cameron

David Cameron

Britain and France connive with Mali’s military junta which is barely in control of events following two coups in 2012 that destroyed an imperfect democratic system in that impoverished country. It would have been far more preferable to intervene to strengthen the political institutions and thus prevent the insubordinate military officers. Are such follies a symptom of a pathological instinct in great powers of the past and present to leave it till it is too late, and then go with all guns blazing? Or is their aim to control territory and resources of others through client regimes?

Chinese investment in Africa over the years also must be checked for the West’s access to energy and raw materials. France had made a strategic decision to go for nuclear power in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Four decades on, more than three-fourths of electricity needed is generated in about sixty nuclear plants spread all over France. Mali’s confirmed and potential deposits of uranium amount to seventeen thousand tons or more; then there is gold; and Mali, Niger, Libya as well as Nigeria together have vast oil wealth. There is a lot to fight for, but there could be a heavy price to pay.

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