As some readers of this blog may know, I have a large soft spot for the Watery Isle. I have visited friends and family there roughly once a year for as long as I can remember, and I lived there as a student, twice, in 2003 and 2006-7. So when I comment on events there, I do so with something more than an outsider’s concern. But today, I comment as an American.
Let me explain. Despite all the hoopla about ‘David Cameron the conservative reformer.’ his policies are identical to the Thatcherite Tories of three decades ago. That is, shrinking the size of government through upper-income tax cuts and slashing spending, and focusing what’s left of government on supporting ‘traditional values.’ [Especially egregious is his subtly concealed scheme to cut welfare payments to poor single moms–a group that correlates with immigrants– while increasing the tax breaks to married couples, essentially paying middle-class white women to stay home and have babies. ‘Lie back and think of England,’ much?]
Together, as one journalist has already noted, these add up to a government that helps southern England at the expense of the North: the South is London financiers, Oxbridge academics, doctrinaire Anglicans and well-kept lawns. The North used to be factories, mines, sheep farms, and Protestant dissent, but Thatcherite labor reforms took the Northern economy and culture apart (as globalization necessitated, I admit). The result is that Britain is overly reliant on its financial sector and took a harder hit than most developed nations when the finance world collapsed last year. Granted, New Labour has done a whole lotta nothing to give the de-industrialized North something else to live on, but given that the North remains Labour’s consituency, the chances of Britain’s lack of economic diversity being addressed are much higher with Labour than with the Tories. Especially now that the financial crisis has made it possible for Labour to make a market-based argument for why Britain needs to start doing something besides banking again instead of the old socialist arguments that they rightly left behind 10 years ago.
All of this matters when it comes to understanding the two parties’ attitudes to foreign policy. A Northern economy of producers needs places to send its goods; it needs influence over trade policy and immigration policy and a regional neighborhood of stable, growing economies. A Southern economy of bankers just needs the world’s capital flows to pass through London and the pound to remain strong. In other words, a Northern economic strategy must be managed on the global stage; the Southern economic strategy can be managed from home. So while Labour’s Miliband insists that active involvement in the EU makes Britain economically stronger, the South-leaning Tories see Europe as nothing more than a swipe at Britain’s political autonomy. Economic internationalism isn’t, ultimately, on their agenda.
Why should America care? Because one of these days, we’re not going to be the world’s superpower anymore. An outright GDP race between us and China, say, is a race we’ll ultimately lose. But in a multipolar system, with a powerful entity in each region whose representatives can negotiate on the region’s behalf, we have the opportunity to become the primary influencers of a Great Power diplomacy, having cultivated diplomatic engagement with all the big players already.
China, Russia and Saudi Arabia have been able to take a certain ownership of their regional neighbors to become regional representatives. Brazil and India are starting to think about it more. But no one European country has that kind of relative power over the others. A strong EU overcomes this hurdle and makes stable multi-polarity possible. And there is no strong EU without Britain in it. Firstly, because the Germans are rightly fed up of pulling the region’s economic weight; secondly, because the Tory promise to revisit the Lisbon treaty (and likely withdraw from it) would put a literal stop to EU advances.
What, if anything, can the US do to stop a Cameron government from taking its roll-back-the-clock-on-Europe steps? I have no idea, but I do know that whatever the steps are, Obama might have the best shot of anyone of taking them.He and Cameron share an individualist streak that I abhor, but it means they are likely to have a pretty good personal working relationship. If institutionalists within the Obama administration are able to persuade him that a strong EU is a major US goal (he’s never indicated he believes otherwise, but he’s also focused his foreign policy energies outside Europe), he may be able to pass the word along. Here’s to hoping.