It’s Too Early to Say If May Is Breaking with Cameron’s Legacy

One month in, the new prime minister is already supposed to have made big changes. This is wishful thinking.

British home secretary Theresa May is greeted by EU foreign affairs coordinator Federica Mogherini in Brussels, September 22, 2015
British home secretary Theresa May is greeted by EU foreign affairs coordinator Federica Mogherini in Brussels, September 22, 2015 (EEAS)

It is always disappointing to read something of poor quality in The American Interest, which is one of my favorite publications. In this case, a Theresa May puff piece by one Neil Barnett that bears little relation to the realities of British foreign policy.

Barnett takes former prime minister David Cameron and his deputy, George Osborne, to task for gutting British defense, including the Harrier jet, leaving Britain without a carrier strike capability until the F-35 enters service, and the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft, leaving Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines vulnerable to Russian stalking.

He’s not wrong about the specifics. The Atlantic Sentinel has published similar criticisms, including this excellent report from Chris Revell about the Nimrod back in 2014.

But Barnett commits a classic polemic sin when he ascribes motive to Cameron and Osborne without giving us any reason to believe he has an intimate understanding of their thinking.

He writes, “Both men appeared to have no real sense for or interest in security matters, rather viewing the Ministry of Defence as little more than a drain on the budget and NATO as a dreary obligation.”

That’s quite an accusation to make, especially when you don’t have anything to back it up.

Significant decisions

Barnett then proceeds to argue May is breaking with the Cameron-Osborne years, but he again falls short in substantiating his claims.

He writes that the new prime minister has made two “highly significant” decisions since coming to power.

One was to “push through” Parliament a vote to renew the Trident submarine program. Except that vote was scheduled by her predecessor.

The second was to press pause on the construction of an £18 billion nuclear power station to be operated by France’s EDF and with financing from the China General Nuclear Power Company.

May is reported to have misgivings about giving China a sensitive stake in the United Kingdom’s energy supply. Cameron and Osborne had no such qualms and hailed the Chinese involvement as a triumph of British internationalism.

So there is one substantive change; not enough to justify Barnett’s absurd claim that May will “remedy five years of neglect of foreign and security policy under David Cameron.”

Wishful thinking

The rest of the article is boilerplate about what a dangerous world we live in with a snide toward those who campaigned against a British exit from the European Union for supposedly “willing into being” the very risks they warned against (damage to the economy, reinvigorated Scottish nationalism).

It is rather Barnett who falls victim to wishful thinking, seeing in May the redeemer of Britain’s position the world.

His is a simplistic narrative that does a disservice to American readers who are genuinely interested in how Brtish foreign policy might evolve after “Brexit”.

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