[A-List] UK politics: rediscovering Toryism

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Tue Oct 5 07:18:02 MDT 2004

Who will be Britain's Gaullists?

This servile subjection to the US is far from being a Tory tradition

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Tuesday October 5, 2004
The Guardian

After their fourth-place debacle behind Ukip in Hartlepool, the Tories
gather in Bournemouth more hopeless than ever. Tony Blair is disliked by his
own party and distrusted by the electorate, and still the Tories can't lay a
glove on him politically. Their misery is matched by the anger of millions
on the left, appalled by what Blair has done, and yet unable to get rid of
him. Many of them persuade themselves that, bad as Blair is, the Tories
would be worse, not least in terms of servile subjection to the US.

But need that be true? Not only is the Iraq war deeply unpopular with
ordinary Tories across the country, as many MPs privately admit,
unquestioning obedience to US orders is far from a Tory tradition. Over the
years the Tories have often had a better record than Labour of detachment
from Washington.

Any Tory illusions about America really should not have survived the Suez
episode. In 1956, Britain, France and Israel went to war on false pretences
to destroy a troublesome Arab dictator (does that have a familiar ring?)
before the Eisenhower administration ruthlessly pulled the rug from under
the British and the French. Washington showed that any idea of a "special
relationship" was thoroughly one-sided.

Later relations between the Tories and America were often more tense than
transatlantic rhetoric suggested. Although Harold Wilson adroitly avoided
committing British troops to Vietnam, he annoyed the Labour party by giving
his tepid verbal endorsement to the war.

But one wonders how many people remember that in 1966 the Tories were told
emphatically that this country should keep out of Vietnam war, by the shadow
defence minister at the time, Enoch Powell. He was anything but reflexively
pro-American, and it's a pity that his healthy scepticism about the US is
the one thing his acolytes have forgotten.

Between 1970 and 1974, Edward Heath tried to turn his party and country away
from America toward Europe. But much more fascinating was his successor,
Margaret Thatcher. She was decidedly less a supporter of "America right or
wrong" than is often supposed, and had several eye-opening experiences.

After the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, US assistance for its
British ally was far from instant or open-handed. There was already a
neo-conservative cabal in Washington, keener to keep on terms with useful
Latin American dictators than with London. When the US did offer London some
help, it was against the wishes of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Washington's
ambassador to the UN.

In 1983, Thatcher was incensed when the US invaded Grenada to suppress a
leftwing coup, and London was not even informed in advance about this
assault on a former British colony.

She did allow the Americans to use air bases in England for a punitive raid
on Libya in 1986. Yet, apart from the Foreign Office and the 70% of the
British people who opposed the action, it was strongly criticised inside her
cabinet by Norman Tebbit, Nigel Lawson and John Biffen, none of them
shrinking liberal violets. Even the prime minister was unenthusiastic. After
all, she had said not long before: "I do not believe in retaliatory strikes
that are against international law." She refused to support Israel when it
bombed the PLO in Tunis, asking what the American reaction would be if she
"bombed the Provos in Dundalk".

That same year, in one of the least known but most remarkable episodes of
her prime ministership, Thatcher gave the US secretary of state, George
Shultz, a tongue lashing, which is recorded in the American NSC archives.
Did Yitzhak Shamir ever intend to negotiate over the West Bank and
Jerusalem, she asked, or did he believe all biblical Israel belonged to him?
Israel's claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East was ruined by the
way it "denies basic rights" to the Palestinians, and Israel was "simply
holding the world to ransom". She angrily told Shultz that the US was the
only power which could do anything about this, but instead it acquiesced in
every Israeli action.

April this year provided a stark contrast. Our current prime minister gave
his fawning approval to a deal between President Bush and Ariel Sharon,
which tore up existing American and British policy. It was an unprecedented
personal and national humiliation for Blair - one that Thatcher would never
have conceded.

For the Tories this is not just a history lesson. If they do have a future,
it must surely be as a libertarian party at home, and as an Anglo-Gaullist
one abroad. That means healthy scepticism about undemocratic centralism in
Europe but, just as importantly, equal scepticism about American actions,
interests and motives. It would be right, it would be popular - and it would
be in Tory tradition.

· Geoffrey Wheatcroft's book The Strange Death of Tory England is published
by Penguin in the new year

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