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May 04, 2010

Our Lady's Mantle: Brendan Simms offers a personal perspective on the General Election

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - examines the choices faced, both in terms of international security and higher education policy, at the General Election. The views expressed here are those of Prof. Simms; they are not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Director or Trustees.

In the early 1990s, the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy at Cambridge University was presided over by the splendid figure of Father John Osman, a fine host and prelate of robust Conservative disposition. We all went to mass the last Sunday before the 1992 election full of excitement as to whether and how he would seek to influence our decision. Would he allow his true colours to show? The exact content of his sermon is now somewhat hazy in mind, but I am happy to say that Father John did not treat us to a Conservative Party Political Broadcast. Instead he delivered a disquisition on the Virgin Mary. Right at the end of his remarks, however, Father John said: "And remember, Our Lady's mantle is blue!".

Many did indeed vote Conservative, and immediately bitterly regretted it. By the end of the year, the re-elected administration of John Major had irretrievably tarnished itself by its handling of the economy during the ERM crisis, and, in my eyes by its failure to act against ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

Those who voted Labour in 1997 were motivated by many factors but in some cases it was a determination to break with the failed Conservative foreign policy which had brought us the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, when three years of western, and particularly British failure to intervene to stop atrocities culminated in the massacre of seven thousands unarmed Muslim men and boys.

These supporters of humanitarian intervention voted Labour again in 2001 and 2005, on similar grounds. Mr Blair's "ethical foreign policy", greeted with much Conservative harrumphing at the outset, brought us the intervention against Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. More controversially, Saddam Hussein's dictatorship was overthrown in 2003 and Iraq was given a shot at democracy.

This election is different; things have changed since Mr Blair left power in 2007.

If Labour's current election propaganda is anything to go by, none of his work in foreign policy is any cause for pride. My local candidate, Daniel Zeichner - seeking to regain the Cambridge seat lost by Anne Campbell to David Howarth of the Lib Dems in 2005 - has sent around a list of the party "top fifty achievements". Strikingly, all of the first twenty refer to domestic matters, such as education and health. Northern Ireland, which has some foreign policy dimensions, comes in at 23, the Kyoto targets at 24, overseas aid at 38, Scottish and Welsh devolution at 45, sub-Saharan aid at 47, the European Social Chapter at 48, the campaign against cluster munitions at 49, and the treatment armed forces at 50. There is no mention at all of keeping the country safe from terrorism, or the successes in the Balkans. It is as if Mr Blair's "doctrine of the international community" had never existed.

At the same time, the Conservative position on national security and foreign policy has shifted markedly since the Major years. They are now in some ways the heirs to Mr Blair in foreign policy. They have only appropriated part of the legacy, to be sure: Mr Cameron's anti-Europeanism, the party's bizarre alignments in the European parliament, and his promise "never" to adopt the Euro are all stances which damage Britain's ability to project power abroad to defend its values and interests; here Mr Brown has the stronger arguments.

But the core of the Mr Blair's foreign policy project - the need to promote security through the export of democracy, to combat international terrorism abroad and extremism at home - is very much reflected in the Conservative manifesto. And in the debates, Mr Cameron was the only national leader with the courage to suggest that China - which when all is said and done is still a one-party dictatorship - might need to be deterred with nuclear weapons.

The kaleidoscope has also shifted in my own area of higher education. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was a hate figure for her cuts and the introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which many felt privileged publication over reflection and teaching. Now, under pressure from Lord Mandelson, the Labour government has announced a new Research Excellence Framework (REF) to assess the research output by British academics. Unlike the old, the REF will not only require evidence of scholarly merit but also of

demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture or quality of life.
This demand violates the cardinal principle of freedom of research, encourages unscholarly short-termism in pursuit of measurable "impacts", and militates against the very "blue skies" thinking on which truly transformational change in public policy depends. Besides is no intellectually robust method of assessing "impact", because of conflicting and shifting normative assumptions, and the long timelines on which the recognition of really radical breakthroughs often depend.

Not surprisingly, British academics are up in arms about this move, with petitions signed by thousands of scholars, flanked by strong letters of protest from the Royal Society and the British Academy. The Universities Minister, David Lammy, has stuck to his guns, however. By contrast, the Conservative front bench spokesmen on education and higher education, David Willetts and Michael Gove, have come out strongly against an overly intrusive government oversight of scholarly research. As Tories they instinctively understand that there is no surer way of stifling the individual creativity which has made the British third-level sector so vibrant. They have called for ia two-year delay in the implementation of the REF "impact factor" until a defensible measurement of "impact" can be devised (effectively this means postponing it for ever).

Whoever wins on May 6th, I hope that the new government will return to the foreign policy stance of the Blair years and spend what it can spare for higher education wisely. Ideally, a new administration would do two things. First, resume support for humanitarian intervention and democracy promotion. Secondly, scale back the REF more generally, and replace it with a much "lighter touch" form of assessment, thus saving the taxpayer millions of pounds and British academics millions of wasted hours filling in forms. We need money for the promotion of our values abroad, and value for the money we spend on education.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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I fail to see how adopting the euro would in any way improve Britain's ability to project power. All it would do is remove the ability of the Bank of England to try to keep inflation under control or to stimulate economic activity by adjusting the interest rate. It would, furthermore, prevent Britain from attempting to revive manufacturing and competitiveness in other export industries by devaluing the pound. What is more, the country would be at the mercy of other states living by the rules Ė something which Greece, Portugal and Spain have shown cannot be relied upon. If Britain suffers severe austerity due to the irresponsible profligacy of her government, elected by her population thatís one thing. Itís quite another to have this imposed upon the British people by the irresponsibility and profligacy of another state over which she has no control.

Posted by: PT at May 4, 2010 04:29 PM
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