Intervention: too much of it abroad, not enough of it at home

The mark of the liberal interventionist is a mix of faith in the state, and scepticism about it

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General elections come and go and yet the same Prime Minister seems to surface once the votes are cast.

When David Cameron once described himself as the “heir to Blair”, he was not being mischievous or opportunistic, but speaking a deep truth. I find it increasingly difficult to tell the two apart.Both are what are known as liberal interventionists, although Tony Blair prefers to be described as a “progressive” and Cameron likes the term “liberal Conservative”. It amounts to the same. The distinctive mark of the liberal interventionist is a profound faith in the British state to make a positive difference abroad and a scepticism about the state as an effective instrument within the UK. Their liberalism guides them towards a less active state domestically. Their instinct to intervene makes them statists in foreign affairs.

Supporting some form of intervention in Syria, and in his entire conduct of the G8 from the tieless shirts to the genuinely charming, assiduous diplomacy, Cameron might have been Blair, who unsurprisingly is a keen supporter of the current Prime Minister’s activism in foreign affairs.

Blair became an interventionist gradually but when he got there he became a characteristically passionate and articulate advocate. His then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, once told me that at first he could not persuade Blair to engage with the crisis in Bosnia. Cook managed to do so only when he told Blair that the Conservatives were hardening their line on military intervention. At which point, Blair was off. His actions were shaped by political expediency and the hope that through force tyranny could be replaced by peaceful democracy. Cameron is slightly different. After Iraq, political expediency points any leader towards inaction. So in relation to Syria, Cameron really must mean it.

Foreign affairs came to dominate Blair’s thinking and provided him with an opportunity to make his mark. The same applies to Cameron. They have little expertise or interest in economic policy. The former Tory leader Michael Howard once offered the shadow chancellorship to Cameron, but the future leader chose the Education brief instead. Now George Osborne holds sway on the economy. Similarly, though less harmoniously, Gordon Brown enjoyed a near monopoly over economic policy in the New Labour era.

But the lack of economic expertise does not mean the ruling liberal interventionists are indifferent to domestic policy. Blair was passionate about a specific approach to public-service reform involving choice, competition and a theoretical devolution of power away from the state towards the user. Cameron has continued along the same lines. His original NHS reforms removed any reference to the Health Secretary having responsibility for the NHS, an omission that alarmed those Conservatives with a more subtle view of the state and its relationship with the user of public services.

As with foreign affairs, the Blair/Cameron objective on domestic policy is worthy, but hits practical obstacles that challenge their sometimes simplistic instincts. Money for public services is raised centrally and therefore central government is bound to be responsible for how the money is spent. There is no genuine choice for parents, patients, or commuters without the resources to establish a surplus of good hospitals, GPs, schools and transport options.

Still this particular reform agenda commands wide support from followers of the two rulers. It is easy to imagine some of Cameron’s advisers working for Blair and vice versa. Take a look at a quartet of brilliant columnists. The writer Julian Glover gave up a column to work for Cameron. The former Blair adviser Philip Collins became a columnist. Daniel Finkelstein entered the world of commentary from the Conservative Party. All three could join my esteemed colleague John Rentoul, the world’s leading Blairite and fan of Cameron, for a glass of wine and would agree on most matters. As well as being brilliant, I always find them to be cheerful. No wonder, they and their ideas have ruled for decades.

Blair rationalises this consensus by arguing that the era of the left and right is over and that the only split is between “open and closed” – protectionism vs free trade, interventionism vs isolationists, immigration vs strict controls. This rather loftily elevates Blair’s own politics to an entire global trend. Finklestein got closer to it when he wrote approvingly that Blair had moved towards the centre right. Cameron astutely noted this, too, and, in his very smart early phase as leader, recognised that the best way to undermine Blair and Labour was to support him. The support also happened to be sincere.

Both Prime Ministerial liberal interventionists have been constrained. Gordon Brown did not oppose the war in Iraq, but he challenged constantly Blair’s domestic reforms, partly from the perspective of the Treasury that wanted to keep control, but also because he thought more deeply about when markets worked and when they could not. Nick Clegg and his party have at times been an obstacle to Cameron, both on the foreign and domestic front, proving that liberalism can take many forms.

Famously, the Lib Dems opposed the war in Iraq, but sadly they had no power to prevent Blair from making his moves. Now they are in a position to constrain Cameron and perhaps save him from himself. Similarly, the social liberal wing of the Liberal Democrats demanded changes to the original NHS reforms. As liberal interventionists, Blair and Cameron discover a faith in the state at home in one respect. Blair advocated a long list of authoritarian measures including holding suspects for 90 days. Cameron would like to do more in different ways, but is blocked by Clegg. Clegg is closer to being a pure liberal, different from the liberal interventionists and some way removed from social liberals in his party. The term “liberal” is the most elastic in politics.

Is the world or the UK safer after seemingly eternal rule from liberal interventionists? Are public services automatically much more user-friendly when the state steps back? Perhaps the ruling elite at Westminster should put more effort into getting the state to work effectively at home and place less faith in it working abroad. They will have time to test their ideas further. While liberal interventionists remain sincerely committed to establishing democracies elsewhere, it seems impossible to vote them out of power in the UK.

Twitter:  @steverichards14

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