British Elections: The Leaders’ Debate – Foreign Affairs

Michael Collins

I enjoyed Sterling Newberry’s excellent article of April 19, Liberal Democrats on the Verge of Historic Takedown.  The numbers were certainly there for a Nick Clegg – Liberal Democrat stampede if only Clegg had the ability to finish off the old parties, as he refers to Labour and the Conservatives.

Last night’s party leaders debate was a must win.  Clegg had to differentiate himself by showing that he was more than just another of the hallow men who occupy so many positions of power in the new millennium.

He had the momentum but did he have the substance and skill to close the door on Labour and the Conservatives?

I watched the entire debate.  Before I began that ordeal, I saw this quote form Adam Price, Member of Parliament from Plaid Cymru, the independence party in Wales.

I’d engaged in about 36 hours of self indulgent hope after reading the Newberry piece.  I actually thought that Clegg might represent some sort of shift in the way things are done.  But that’s not the case, it seems.

The topic of this debate was foreign affairs.  The candidates spent nearly as much time on immigration policy.  During that exchange, real alternatives were explored to a degree.  But on foreign affairs, there was a virtual consensus.

Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg endorsed the Afghanistan invasion.  It was essential to prevent “more terrorist attacks in Britain.”  His timing is off.  The terrorist attacks in Britain came after the invasion.  He made a point that the government had to provide better equipment and support for the troops.  His main point was on execution:  “Time is running out for the mission in Afghanistan. Unless we change direction, failure is inevitable.”  We’ve heard all of this before.  It’s a bit old.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the effort was necessary to break the “chain of terror that links these terrorists to actions in the United Kingdom.”  “To keep the streets safe in Britain,” he argued, “we have to take on al Qaeda wherever it is.”  Conservative Cameron argued more of the same.  Did Richard Holbrooke write this dialog?.

As the United States General in charge of Afghanistan laments the death of too many innocents, these three are cheer leading for more war.  I wonder if any of them read that news and, if so, what effect did it have on them?

Since the focus was on Clegg tonight, it should be noted clearly that he had nothing original to say about sustaining an effort that delivered so much pain and engendered so much hostility toward the United States and Great Britain.

The other foreign policy issues raised were the renewal of the British Trident nuclear deterrent and relationships with the European Union.  Brown jumped on Clegg for his willingness to simply review the Trident program.  Clegg indicated, yet again, that he had nothing much new to say as he nearly apologized for questioning Trident.

There were some interesting points in the debate.  Each candidate was concerned about securing retirement programs, support for those who cared for their elderly relatives, and taking personal responsibility for curbing environmental excesses.

An audience member asked the candidates to comment on the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict II in the context the Church’s failure to prevent child abuse.  Brown’s least guarded moment came at this point.  He showed a real depth of understanding:

“I’ve met some of the people who have rightly complained about the abuse that they were subject to when young and it never leaves them, it’s something that is with them always and no matter what you can try to do to help, there is always this problem that they have to face up to every day that they were abused, cruelly abused, by people in whom they placed their faith and trust.”

Brown Wins the Debate

Brown’s comparison of the two male model look-alikes, Clegg and Cameron, to his two “young boys squabbling” set the tone early on (and perhaps for the remainder of the campaign).  Brown positioned himself as the éminence grise:   “I’ve had to take the country through the most difficult crisis,” he said gravely.  He sealed the deal by making this point several times: “The priority at the moment is that we continue to have an economic recovery,” making clear who was in charge of righting the ship of state.

Brown was the clear winner based on his poise, rhetorical technique, and willingness to go for the throat on several occasions.  He presented as the adult who had lead Great Britain from near collapse to very modest but positive economic growth according to figures released just before the debate.  By doing that, he created the impression that he was the clear choice to lead in the future.

My judgment on the debate is based on the style and skill of the candidates, not any agreement with their positions.  On substance, I favor the regional parties in Wales and Scotland that seek independence and then membership in the European Union.  Maybe that would end the infection of imperial fantasies that arrived during the Norman invasion, caused so much pain around the world, and continue to live (albeit without potency) in these three candidates.

As for Clegg, his very real surge has a strong basis in the numbers that Newberry presented.  But his presence and programs lack the daring to accomplish of a true sea-change in politics.  He needs to work on a few original ideas.

END

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