Cameron Launches Civil Society Initiative

The new British government has been quick to act on one of the Conservatives’ main campaign promises: to bring about what David Cameron described as a “big society.” The prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launched their civil society program at Downing Street on Tuesday with community organizers from around the United Kingdom.

The proposals designed and discussed at Downing Street aim to empower local communities, or “take power away from politicians and give it to people,” as Cameron put it. “That’s because we know instinctively that the state is often too inhuman, monolithic and clumsy to tackle our deepest social problems. We know that the best ideas come from the ground up,” he said, “not the top down.”

The announced plans were very much in line with the Conservatives’ campaign promises, including the launching of an annual “Big Society Day” that is supposed to inspire volunteering and the establishment of a “Big Society Bank” that will provide finance for neighborhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other nongovernmental bodies.

Notable proposals include a radical reform of the planning system that will allow people a greater stake in determining the shape of their own neighborhoods. The government further promises to “introduce new powers to help communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure,” and give people the right to bid to take over services previously run by the state.

Politically, local governments and neighborhoods should have great power as well. City councils will have “a general power of competence” while regional planning is to be delegated to locally elected officials.

Apparently modeled on the American Freedom of Information Act, Cameron also intends to institutionalize a new “right to data,” so that information held by the government can be requested and used by the public. Local police will further be obliged to regularly publish detailed local crime statistics, “so the public can get proper information about crime in their neighborhoods and hold the police to account for their performance.”

Two plans that appear a bit less libertarian include the introduction of a National Citizen Service that should “provide” opportunities for sixteen year olds to “develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens.”

The government also promised to “train a new generation of community organizers” and support the creation of neighborhood groups, especially in deprived areas. How exactly it will do so remains to be seen but it is a promising sign that the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is gearing up for action so readily. Perhaps even more so than other European countries, the United Kingdom could do well with a bit less centralized control.

Macmillan’s Game At an End

Since the “winds of change” swept Britain’s colonies scattered all about the globe, this sceptred isle on Europe’s northwestern flank has, as Harry Truman’s secretary of state Dean Acheson once put in, lost an empire and not yet found a role.

For the past half century or so, the United Kingdom enjoyed a position in the world quite disproportionate to its economic weight. Recent prime minister as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair consciously pursued a strategy aimed at maintaining that position. With the force of personality and sheer determination, they managed to elevate Britain into an international player above its natural station. But the next few years “are set to prove a watershed for a nation that has grown used to punching above its weight in foreign policy,” warns Philip Stephens, writing for the Financial Times. Read more “Macmillan’s Game At an End”

Russian Foreign Arms Purchases Are Good for Regional Stability

A great deal of ink has been spilled recently about how terrible it is that a number of European NATO members are considering selling arms and military equipment to Russia. Many commentators vehemently argue against such arms sales. The reasons for the opposition are rarely stated openly, but when they are they tend to focus on the fear that such deals would tie West European states more closely to Russia, preventing them from standing firm against Russian policies that the commentators oppose. A secondary reason is that these deals would improve Russian military capabilities.

Both of these reasons are fundamentally misguided. First of all, countless studies have shown that greater ties between states reduce the likelihood of conflict between them. If France or Germany sell military equipment to Russia, they not only establish closer ties between their militaries, but they also make the Russian military more dependent on NATO military equipment. Cold warriors seem to think that the dependency argument only runs in one direction — Western states who sell to Russia wouldn’t want to lose sales, so they’ll do whatever Russia wants. But the road of mutual dependence is a two way street. If Russia starts buying certain categories of military equipment from abroad, its domestic defense industry will likely lose whatever capability it still has to produce that category of equipment. Russia will then depend on NATO states for the procurement (and perhaps maintenance) of its military equipment. In that situation, Russian leaders will have to think twice before undertaking any actions toward NATO that are sufficiently hostile as to result in it being cut off from access to such equipment. This form of dependence is much more serious. After all, if Russia gets upset with France and stops buying its military equipment, French arms manufacturers will lose some money and perhaps some French people will lose their jobs. But if France cuts off military sales to Russia in a situation where Russia is dependent on France for certain types of equipment, Russian security will suffer.

Some analysts fear that Russia could use equipment purchased from NATO, such as the Mistral ships, to attack its neighbors. The 2008 Georgia war showed that even without NATO equipment the Russian military is plenty strong enough to defeat a small and weak army of the kind that just about all of its immediate neighbors possess. Western arms sales are not necessary for Russia to be able to successfully undertake hostile action against a country like Georgia. But again, if NATO arms sales to Russia become ubiquitous, Russia may well become more hesitant to undertake actions that could potentially result in the cut-off of such arms sales. In other words, Western leverage over Russian actions will actually increase.

Second, if Russia starts using NATO equipment, this will improve interoperability between Russian and NATO military forces, making their efforts at military cooperation more effective. Since the two sides are much more likely to work together on potential issues such piracy, smuggling and counterterrorism than they are to actually fight each other, it seems to me that selling NATO equipment to Russia can only lead to improvements in security for NATO states.

Russian leaders have recently contemplated a large number of potential arms purchases from abroad, including both basic equipment, such as uniforms, weaponry, such as sniper rifles, and major platforms, such as amphibious assault ships and armored vehicles. This shows that these leaders no longer trust the capabilities of Russia’s domestic defense industry to rebuild the Russian army, which is equipped almost entirely with aging Soviet era technology. They have come to understand that foreign ties are only way to rebuild their military capabilities in a reasonable time frame.

Western leaders should encourage this trend, because it will only enhance regional and global security. Rather than “eroding the effectiveness of NATO policies toward Russia and in NATO’s own eastern neighborhood,” extensive arms sales by NATO states to Russia will increase Russian dependence on the West, decreasing the likelihood that Russia would take unilateral military action contrary to Western interests, while enhancing regional security by improving the ability of Russian forces to cooperate with NATO forces against threats to their mutual security.

This story first appeared on Russian Military Reform, May 12, 2010.

The Great Experiment

With David Cameron installed as prime minister on Tuesday evening, for the first time in almost seventy years the United Kingdom has a coalition government again. Will it hold?

Elections in early May produced a hung parliament with the Conservatives just twenty seats short of a majority. Negotiations between Labour and the minority Liberal Democrats reportedly broke down on Tuesday which paved the way for Tory leader David Cameron to ascend to 10 Downing Street. He was asked by Queen Elizabeth II to form a new government in her name after eight o’clock GMT that same day.

In his first speech as prime minister, Cameron admitted that Britain suffers “deep, pressing problems,” including a huge budget deficit, a mounting sovereign debt as well as a “political system in need of reform.” It seems likely that some sort of agreement has been reached with the liberals on remodeling Britain’s electoral systems which currently denies them proportionate representation in Parliament. At the last election, the party won 23 percent of the national vote but just 9 percent of the seats. Instant runoff voting, also known as alternative voting (AV), is something that might be considered.

The next government’s foremost priority will be to get spending under control and prevent Britain’s already record debt from skyrocketing. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are well aware of the need of reform. According to David Cameron on Wednesday, under Labour the country endured “a chronic short-termism in government.” The next five years, he promised, would allow long-term decisionmaking.

On foreign policy and defense there may be greater discord. The liberals have campaigned against renewing the Trident nuclear defense system, arguing that it belongs to a different era. Both Labour and Conservatives warned against unilateral disarmament however. Some sort of compromise, including defense reform but nothing too significant to upset old guard Conservatives, will likely be worked out.

Unlike the Tories, Liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly pro-Europe and favor joining the eurozone eventually. Party leaders have agreed that Britain won’t give up the pound during this Parliament. Whether the country will nonetheless seek a more active place in EU politics remains to be seen.

Commentators have been quick to point out possible causes for future consternation. Writing for the Times, Daniel Finkelstein notes that by allying himself with the Liberal Democrats, “Cameron has the potential to lift himself and the party above normal partisan politics.” He may emerge as a national leader and transform his party in the process to be seen as “broader, more generous, more capable of listening and of compromise.” But there is the danger that this coalition could split the Tories. Both Tim Bale at The Guardian and Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic predict grumbling on the right with Cameron possibly conceding too to Nick Clegg’s party. Barry Legg is more assertive. “David Cameron,” he believes, “has sold out the Tory Party.”

From whipping Tory MPs through in support of a referendum on AV, the number and nature of cabinet places he’s going to give to the liberals, to surrendering the bedrock of the Westminster system — by giving way on fixed parliaments — Cameron gains office but not power.

Liberal Democrat voters may not be happy either, suggests Jackie Ashley. Before anything else, they wanted to keep David Cameron out of 10 Downing Street. “This isn’t what they voted for.”

James Joyner at New Atlanticist takes a more nuanced view. He notes that the British people overwhelmingly rejected Gordon Brown, not Cameron. For Labour to remain in government would have appeared illegitimate. Indeed, according to E.J. Dionne, that’s exactly why Labour didn’t actually want to stay in power.

As unusual as the current coalition may seem, according to Joyner, “it really couldn’t have gone the other way.”

It would have been simply bizarre [for the Liberal Democrats] to have run as an alternative to Labour and then form a government that kept Labour in charge.

What’s more, David Cameron didn’t really “sell out” to Nick Clegg. Alternative voting doesn’t really undermine the Westminster system. Appointing several liberal secretaries won’t undermine conservative policy. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have already agreed to drop plans for a “mansion tax” on properties costing more than £2 million and to a cap on non-European immigration.

But the most important tasks ahead include social and economic reform and on these issues, there has been no evidence of infighting between the coalition partners as of yet.

The coalition agreement makes specific mention of the “substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government” and promises to “roll back state intrusion.” Nick Clegg on Wednesday announced that it would be this government’s “simple and yet profound ambition” to “put real power and opportunity into the hands of people, families and communities to change their lives and our country for the better.” That, said Clegg, is what liberalism is all about and it perfectly echoes the “big society” rhetoric of David Cameron’s Conservative Party.

Conservative Cameron Becomes British Prime Minister

After talks between Labour and Liberal Democrats collapsed on Tuesday evening, there was nothing standing between David Cameron and 10 Downing Street anymore. Around eight o’clock GMT, the Conservative leader arrived at Buckingham Palace where Queen Elizabeth II asked him to form a government in her name.

After thirteen years out of power, the Conservatives return to government in a “proper and full coalition” with the liberals. In a statement, Cameron added that he hoped to provide “strong, stable government” and expected that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and he could “put aside party differences and work hard for the common good and the national interest.”

Cameron admitted that the country suffers “deep, pressing problems,” including a huge deficit and a “political system in need of reform.” This could indicate that the Conservatives have come to an agreement with their future partners about abolishing Britain’s antiquated voting system to allow minority parties proportionate representation in Parliament.

Britain’s financial woes ought to be Cameron’s foremost concern however, for the country is still mired in recession and confronted with an enormous national debt. Just days before May’s election, economic historian Niall Ferguson warned about the dire state of Britain’s public finances. “The trajectory of British public debt over the next thirty years,” he said, “absent a major change of policy, will take it to a mind blowing 500 percent of GDP.”

Ferguson predicated that the next government would have “a ghastly task on their hands” to try to reform Britain’s expansive, and costly, welfare state. The country was more ready for Thatcherism in 1979, according to Ferguson, “yet it needs it more today than it did then.” He might have echoed a warning expressed by Governor Mervyn King of the Bank of England who noted last month that forthcoming tax hikes and public spending cuts would leave whatever party came to government so unpopular that it could end up being thrown out of power for thirty years to come.

Britain’s national accounts are in a state of abject crisis indeed. The budget deficit stands at £163 billion today, or 12 percent of GDP — far above the European average of 7.5 percent and just one point behind Greece’s. The national debt has reached a record high of £857 billion meanwhile.

During the last thirteen years of Labour government, spending on health care and education has more than doubled while taxes remained almost unchanged. The gargantuan expenditure of bailouts and stimulus packages came on top of that along with the effect of sliding tax revenues in the recession.

During the election campaign, all party leaders agreed that cutbacks would be necessary but none, Cameron included, dared volunteer specific plans to bring spending under control. George Osborne, the next Chancellor of the Exchequer, will have a difficult job at his hands.

Tens of thousands of jobs may disappear as public services are pruned and unions are already gearing up for a fight. Last month more than 10,000 public-sector workers rallied in London, chanting “No ifs, no buts, no public-sector cuts” but David Cameron will have little choice but to rein in spending by getting people off the government’s payroll.

Andrew Lansley from South Cambridgeshire will be health secretary in Cameron’s cabinet; William Hague of Richmond Yorkshire, who led the Conservative Party between 1997 and 2001 and informally services as Cameron’s deputy, will be his foreign secretary. Liberal Democrat appointees include Vince Cable, to be chief secretary to the Treasury, and David Laws, the next secretary for children, schools and families.

Saving the Euro

Bending the rules of euro management, European leaders and finance ministers agreed to an unprecedented effort to guarantee the stability of the eurozone with loans adding up to nearly $1 trillion (or €750 billion) this weekend.

In spite of the multibillion euro rescue package previously pledged to Greece, investors continued to worry about the unsound fiscal policies of other eurozone members, including Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The value of the euro sharply decreased in recent days while protests in the streets of Athens last week shed further doubt upon the country’s chance to recover — and pay back its loans. Read more “Saving the Euro”

European “Elitism” or American Chagrin

It’s startling how some left-wing economists in the United States have convinced themselves that the Greek debt crisis is evidence of a disdain on the part of the European establishment. It looks like there is still a powerful streak of resentment toward presumed European elitism running through the veins of American commentary.

Paul Krugman previously blamed the “arrogance” of the European policy elite for pushing the eurozone “into adopting a single currency well before the continent was ready for such an experiment.” He liked to blame the euro for all of Greece’s problems, ignoring the simple truth that the country would probably have got into much bigger trouble, and definitely much faster, if it hadn’t been able to rely on the relative stability of the single currency. Read more “European “Elitism” or American Chagrin”

Conservatives Expected to Win UK Elections

David Cameron’s Conservative Party will fall just seventeen seats short of a parliamentary majority, according to a joint poll conducted by major British broadcasters.

The Conservatives are set to win almost a hundred more seats than they gained in 2005, possibly up to 305. Labour would have 255 while the Liberal Democrats, in spite of building unprecedented momentum in the run-up to Thursday’s elections, are likely to actually lose a seat, down to 61.

There are several reasons to question the reliability of the polls. At the Financial Times, Alex Barker notes, among other things, that one out of five voters refuse to respond to exit polls while one of our five votes are cast by mail and therefore not accounted for.

In a brief statement to the press, Conservative leader and possible future prime minister David Cameron declared, “This is a decisive rejection of Labour. We can govern with this result.”

Although polls closed across the country at ten o’clock in the evening, people were still queuing up to cast their vote at least in the districts of Leeds, Sheffield, Sutton Coldfield and Newcastle, according to the BBC. Sky News reported that polling stations in Newcastle upon Tyne and Wallsend were allowed to stay open until everyone had voted.

With such an impressive gain, it seems unlikely that the Conservatives will attempt to come to a coalition with the liberals. They might be able to achieve majority with some of the smaller political parties, like Northern Ireland’s Unionists. Notably, Labour and the Liberal Democrats don’t hold a majority either, ruling out the possibility of another Gordon Brown government.

In either event, the election results will likely stir further discussion about the future of Britain’s antiquated voting system which currently denies minority parties, the Liberal Democrats included, proportionate representation in Parliament.

Biden Addresses European Parliament

Vice President Joe Biden spoke before the European Parliament on Tuesday to reaffirm his country’s commitment to the historic bonds that tie Europe and the United States together.

Biden welcomed the growing power of Europe and that of the European Parliament in particular. “We, the United States, need strong allies and alliances,” he said, “to help us tackle the problems of the twenty-first century.” He mentioned climate change as one of the major challenges of the years to come. While praising the Copenhagen agreement, Biden noted that, “now we have to carry out those emissions cuts.” Read more “Biden Addresses European Parliament”