David Cameron: the ‘heir to Blair’?

By Joseph Perry

After becoming party leader in 2005 David Cameron cleverly opted to cement his modernisation strategy intentions by citing himself as the ‘heir to Blair’ in an attempt to break the Conservatives from the legacy of Thatcher. This shrewd declaration was at first demonstrated by Cameron’s bold initiative to take the Conservatives somewhere they had vacated a long time ago: the centre ground. Comparisons can be drawn with Blair’s own jump for the centre ground through the scrapping of Clause IV and Labour’s ‘out of touch’ socialist routes. The ‘heir to Blair’ assertion has developed further throughout this Parliament as Blair’s sofa style government has largely been carried on. Public service reform has also been a source of continuation, particularly in education. Furthermore, Cameron is earmarked as sharing a silver tongue with Blair as well as many charismatic and aesthetic features.

Does foreign policy follow suit? The Blair administration is a distinct period of British foreign policy represented by an apparent break from the traditional realpolitik thinking of the past in favour of an ‘ethical dimension’, reshaping Britain’s image as a ‘good international citizen’ and even putting Britain at the ‘heart of Europe’. These measures were short lived, however, as the consequences of 9/11 set in motion a reversion back to more traditional instincts of the ‘special relationship’, global activism and Britain having a world role to fulfil. With Cameron being in office for almost three years, there is evidence of a broad continuation within foreign policy. However, there are other variables which Cameron has had to factor in which has made his job much more difficult. In some respects, Cameron has learnt many lessons from Blair’s reign, though overall Britain is far from taking a different course.

Blair’s foreign policy remains scarred by the invasion of Iraq whilst the ethical dimension of his government’s foreign policy is all too often forgotten. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, read out a Mission statement after New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, essentially saying that this government would remould Britain into an influential, caring, and active member of the international community. ‘Rule Britannia was out, Cool Britannia was in’. Human rights were shoved to the top of the agenda, replacing the old fashioned focus on the national interest. However, throughout this period it is evident that rhetoric often failed to match with any substantial action: beneath the spin arguably very little had changed. In particular, the underlying principles of British foreign policy remained the same, illustrated in the Strategic Defence Review. Britain was to retain an independent nuclear deterrent, the means to project force globally, and an emphasis on the importance of the ‘special relationship’ with the United States for our security. Crucially Blair, like many Prime Ministers before him, refused to choose where Britain’s allegiance lay: Atlanticism or Europe. Instead Blair quickly laid out his belief that Britain was a ‘pivotal power’, a middle-ranking power with ties in both the US and Europe, and should use this to project influence in both theatres whilst also acting as a go between.

Blair quickly acquired a taste for military adventure, unafraid to project British force, whether in alignment with his Chicago speech and the resulting ‘Blair doctrine’, or in the national interest. Global activism, to some degree, is based on Britain retaining some degree of great power status, safe-guarding its strategic and vast global economic interests, and continuing to ‘punch above its weight’, contrary to the importance of Cook’s Mission statement or the ‘Blair doctrine’.  Five times in six years British forces were used, becoming an iconic feature of his reign. This foreign activism was conducted on a peace time budget as the strain of two ground wars meant that Britain’s military flirted with apparent ‘overstretch’. The culmination of a busy period for foreign policy was the invasion of Iraq 2003, the event which seemed to unravel all of what Blair previously stood for and had achieved. The failure to bring key European allies with him, suggested that Britain’s role as a ‘pivotal power’ was exaggerated. The emphasis on being a good international citizen working within multilateral institutions was all but revoked. What is more, Blair never recovered in the eyes of the British electorate: Iraq was clearly one intervention too far. It was a grave warning that in the 21st century, global activism has to be legitimate, quick, and with a clear objective after the initial conflict.

So far in Cameron’s foreign policy there have been no grand policy initiatives that can mirror New Labour’s ‘ethical foreign policy’. The promotion of British exports is one theme of importance to Cameron’s foreign policy, evidenced by his trade delegations to India, Brazil, and the Middle East. Still, this by no means symbolises a paradigm shift in foreign policy thinking. Overall it seems that foreign policy is one area of government which is not seen to be in need of a radical overhaul. Rather, foreign policy should resort back to the advancement of the national interest. However, this inaccurately paints a picture of Britain quietly going about its business, whilst aiming to boost its exports.

Cameron seems to share Blair’s view of a global outlook for Britain, following on from New Labour’s devotion to globalisation; Cameron now talks of winning the ‘global race’. There is also a shared presumption that Britain should always play an active role in the international arena. British forces have been used three times now, albeit Afghanistan is an inherited war and there are no combat troops in Mali. Even so Libya was a fine example of Britain projecting its force, attempting to shape events rather than being shaped by them, in true Blair fashion. Further tests lie ahead where again British forces may well be used in North Africa, Iran and Syria, all whilst the military is undergoing setbacks through defence cuts. Where Blair and Cameron are similar, though under difference circumstances, is their reliance on Britain’s military to achieve foreign policy aims whilst either underfunding or cutting it. Though Cameron, along with the Defence Minister Phillip Hammond, has suggested that Defence may be spared in the next round of budget cuts, one thing will remain: Britain’s armed forces will continue to operate above our means, perhaps even more so now than ever. Meanwhile the overseas aid budget has increased. Perhaps this is Cameron’s own method of implementing a moral dimension into Britain’s relationship with the world and being a good international citizen. Echoing Blair and ‘the War on Terror’, the current Prime Minister has warned of a ‘generational struggle’ against terror, boldly stating in the House of Commons that “We must frustrate the terrorists with our security; we must beat them militarily.”

Yet differences have stemmed from Cameron’s speech in 2006: “Foreign policy decisions are not black and white, something which the public well understands. We need a sense of balance, judgement and proportion in handling the complex and dangerous challenges of foreign and security policy in the 21st century.” Maybe this is why Cameron has taken bold steps in balancing the books instead of becoming involved in Syria, for example, or putting boots on the ground in Mali. Restraint is something not inherited from Blair. Instead perhaps it is a lesson, after the costly invasion of Iraq, that consequently recent operations have been smaller and more controlled in accordance with European allies such as in Libya. As mentioned earlier there are vital factors working against Cameron being the ‘heir to Blair’, even if he wished so. The lack of a special ‘special relationship’ and a difficult relationship with Europe are factors which restrict advancing Britain’s national interest and projecting influence. Currently there is little evidence of UK/US relations being little more than a good working relationship, nothing like the closeness shared by Blair with Clinton and Bush. As the US pivots towards Asia and shows little sign of wanting to engage in the world trouble zone, Britain will find it difficult to operate in the fashion that Blair did alongside a hawkish US foreign policy. Does this create an opening for greater cooperation with Europe? Don’t count on it. Contrary to Blair, Cameron has the grim problem of his party’s attitude to Europe to deal with. Although on a positive note Anglo/French relations continue to show strength, possibly rejuvenating the spirit of the St Malo agreement. Both powers took the lead regarding Libya and Mali with the noticeable absence of the US, something Blair could never achieve.

In some respect Cameron has continued in Blair’s shoes in that Britain has continued playing an active role in international affairs ‘punching above its weight’ and thus fulfilling the title of ‘heir to Blair’. However, rather than foreign policy being simply a continuation of Blair’s reign there has been adjustments: Cameron has demonstrated restraint, opting for diplomacy, and acting legitimately with key allies within liberal institutional frameworks. This tamer foreign policy is a result of defence cuts to key military capabilities, the growing reluctance of US activism, and the lessons learnt from how interventions abroad can turn out. Trouble zones such as Syria and the growing instability of the Sahel will provide tempters for Britain to get involved. It would make sense for Cameron to stick to this current course of balance, between acting in the national interest but also within Britain’s means.  Then lessons will have been learnt from the mentor, not just in how to modernise a political party, but also on how to conduct Britain’s foreign policy.


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