By Freddy Gray | April 27, 2011
If antiwar conservatism is a neglected tradition in America, in Britain it is all but forgotten. Take the latest intervention in Libya. It was a Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, who, along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, led the charge to war. He received overwhelming support from the political class in London. In a House of Commons vote on supporting the UN-approved commitment to Libya, only 13 of the 570 members of Parliament present rejected the motion. And of 280 Tories, only one dared say no. This from the party of Lord Salisbury and “splendid isolation.”
The solitary Tory dissident was John Baron, MP for Basildon and Billericay. While the Cameroons parroted Hillary Clinton’s lines about not “standing idly by” as a dictator slaughtered his people, Baron expressed his concerns in blogs and radio interviews. “Here we are yet again intervening in another commodity rich Muslim country,” he wrote on the Conservative Home website last month. “This time the fig leaf is humanitarian aid—and this may well have been a consideration. But comments by Cabinet Ministers over the last week have made it clear that our targeting of military assets on the ground in Libya will only end with Gaddafi’s departure, despite UN Resolution 1973 only talking of a ceasefire and an end to attacks on civilians.”
Baron, 52, is a former captain in the Royal Regiment of the Fusiliers who served in Northern Ireland and Cyprus. Since his entry into Parliament in 2001, he has consistently opposed foreign entanglements. He has criticized the West’s ongoing operations in Afghanistan, and in 2003 he resigned from his position as shadow health secretary to vote against the Iraq War.
That year there were plenty of other Iraq War critics within the Westminster establishment, even among Tories. In 2011, by contrast, the interventionist chorus drowned out dissenting voices. Baron’s stand went largely unnoticed. (I asked several experienced political journalists what they made of Baron’s opposition to the bombing. “John who?” was the typical response.)
The cross-party consensus on Libya was easily reached. The British left seemed satisfied that the war was a worthy enterprise since it had been sanctioned by the United Nations. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, solemnly endorsed the bombing campaign. The Liberal Democrats, who had for the last decade distinguished themselves by their hostility to the Iraq imbroglio, suddenly became the most bellicose party in Westminster. Not one Lib Dem MP opposed the motion supporting UN resolution 1973.
Yet for all the talk of saving civilians and stopping massacres, nobody seemed to know what the purpose of the allied mission in Libya was or what the ideal outcome might be. When Nick Harvey, the Lib Dem minister of state for the armed forces, was asked how long Britain would continue bombing Libyan targets, he answered, “How long is a piece of string?”
If Cameron’s government had wanted to resist intervention, it would have been well positioned so to do. The argument that Britain could not afford to spend billions on another uncertain mission in the Arab world would have made perfect sense. How could a government that had announced cuts to the armed forces budget possibly pay for another war?
In the British right-wing press, moreover, there was plenty of skepticism about the wisdom of taking on Gaddafi. As the idea of intervention on behalf the oppressed Libyans took hold across the world, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail published antiwar editorials. This, surely, was a moment for a hard-headed conservatism in foreign affairs.
For the top Tory brass, however, nonintervention was an unwelcome idea. Liam Fox, secretary of defense, saw in the Libyan crisis an opportunity to make the case against the cuts to the military budget and duly agitated for action. Michael Gove, education secretary and the leading neoconservative intellectual behind Cameron, is thought privately to have urged the prime minister to intervene.
A more ambiguous figure was William Hague, foreign secretary and former party leader. Despite his support for the Iraq War in 2003, Hague has presented himself as cautious rather than ideological in international affairs. During the first few weeks of the Libyan crisis, he seemed reluctant to become involved. But after some negative reports about his unwillingness to act decisively, Hague began thumping for bombs to fall. Conservative realism suddenly seemed like a fantasy.
Last year, in his major first speech as foreign secretary, Hague had promised to bring a more pragmatic approach to British foreign policy, though he warned that the high Tory, Victorian diplomacy of Lord Salisbury—“to drift lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a boat-hook to avoid a collision”—was not good enough for our multilateral world. Yet Britain under Lord Salisbury was the world’s pre-eminent power. How curious it is that now the country wields nothing like the same influence, Conservative politicians should be so eager to meddle in distant conflicts—never mind the national interest.