Friday, June 04, 2010

Will a Change in Britain’s Leadership Lead to a Change in Foreign Policy?

On May 6th, elections were held throughout the United Kingdom. Historically, leadership in parliament has oscillated between two major political parties with other minority parties occupying only a small number of seats. This election, however, had three front-runners for prime minister from three different parties: incumbent Gordon Brown of the Labor party, Nick Clegg (pictured left) of the Liberal Democrats, and David Cameron (pictured right) of the Conservative party. After no clear majority was reached by a candidate on election night, five days of political maneuvering and negotiations ensued. Both Cameron and Brown desperately tried to get Clegg to form a majority coalition with them. In the hopes that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats would unite with Brown’s Labor party, Gordon Brown conceded defeat and resigned. After his resignation, Cameron and the Conservatives “immediately sweetened their offer to the Liberal Democrats, saying Clegg could have not only cabinet posts but also a referendum on electoral reform that could break Britain's traditional two-party dominance.” In spite of Gordon Brown’s attempt, a coalition was soon announced between Clegg and Cameron, where Cameron will serve as the new Prime Minister and Clegg will serve as the Deputy Prime Minister.

This mold-breaking election is likely to inaugurate an era of genuine three-party politics in the U.K. that will more accurately represent the diversity of the population. In spite of the fact that Cameron and Clegg seem to have a good relationship, the coalition only forms a thin majority in parliament and could prove to be extremely fragile. Additionally, the Liberal Democrats are more philosophically in line with the Labor party, so it is difficult to predict just how productive this polarized coalition will be in fulfilling their promises.

David Cameron, who describes himself as a “moderate compassionate conservative” is Britain’s youngest prime minister in 200 years at the age of 43. In terms of the “War on Terror,” Cameron has stated that he believes in “spreading freedom and democracy, and supporting humanitarian intervention,” but he is “skeptical of grand schemes to remake the world.” As one of the first acts of the coalition, Cameron helped create a new US-style National Security Council to “coordinate the work of the foreign, defense, interior, energy and international development departments” in order to aid the nation in assessing national threats and dangers.When it comes to criticisms that the U.K. has received over its perceived unwavering submission to the plans and policies of Washington, Cameron chooses to take a more careful approach towards the U.S. He advocates that the UK should be “steadfast not slavish,” while also recognizing that the relationship is important. He further notes that it is not anti-American to question the U.S.

In terms of other foreign policy issues, Cameron has chosen to make Afghanistan a top priority. While he believes that Britain is on the right track in the Afghan War, he also says that it will take additional time and effort to succeed in removing the Taliban, build up Afghan forces, and fully transition to Afghan control. Additionally, Cameron has criticized Iran for supporting Hezbollah and encouraging further chaos in Iraq, which is a war he voted in favor of entering. In regards to Israel, Cameron is generally a supporter, but he has criticized them in the past for “disproportionate” use of force in the 2006 missile attack on Lebanon. He also advocates for the two-state solution in Israel.

Nick Clegg, the new Deputy Prime Minister, is the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, which is a relatively new party that has never before held such a high office. Clegg, who calls himself a “proud internationalist,” came into favor after appearing on Britain’s very first televised election debates. Although it is not yet known just how much power Clegg will wield in the coalition, it is clear he will bring a more liberal approach. When it comes to foreign policy, Clegg has been unclear on where he stands on a variety of international issues. Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have criticized Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, yet on a variety of other issues Clegg has only noted that the European nations should work together to solve international problems. Although it seems impossible under Conservative power, Clegg campaigned on a promise to bring Britain’s 10,000 troops home within 5 years.

This historic election also brought a new political enthusiasm to the Muslim community in the U.K. A record number of British Muslims demonstrated their commitment to political engagement by registering to vote for the very first time in the May 6th election. Although Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims have traditionally favored Gordon Brown’s Labor party, this time around they were looking for a change. A pre-election poll of Muslim constituents found that “74 per cent of respondents thought the Liberal Democrats offered the fairest foreign policy, compared to just 19 per cent for Labor and five per cent for the Conservatives.” The reason for this clear shift in allegiance likely has to do with frustration over 13 years of Labor rule that has brought the U.K. into two unpopular wars and launched an era of counter-terrorism policies that many Muslims believe unfairly discriminates against them. Clegg’s pre-election criticisms of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza likely won him much favor in the Muslim community given that the above mentioned poll also found that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was overwhelmingly cited as the most important foreign policy concern amongst the Muslim voters surveyed.” Given the uncertainty over how much leverage Clegg will have in the coalition in the coming years, it is difficult to determine what, if anything, will change in British foreign policy. What matters most here is that Muslim voters throughout the United Kingdom made their voices heard in record numbers.

As part of the coalition agreement, Cameron and Clegg have agreed never to condone torture,” and to further demonstrate this commitment the coalition government has launched an inquiry into the complicity of U.K. intelligence agencies in torture in past years. While this is a positive first step toward ending human rights abuses in the War on Terror, the process needs to be transparent and honest while also providing real solutions to stop these practices around the world. Only time will tell how successful the Cameron/Clegg coalition will be, but it is hoped that we have at the very least entered into a new era of greater accountability.

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