It is an exhortation beloved of politicians and pundits everywhere. “Lessons,” they – and we – intone portentously, “must be learned.” Well, sometimes they are. And while many mistakes seem doomed to be repeated – the folly of becoming embroiled in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, whether in a “combat” capacity or not, being the latest – this past year has provided some more hopeful exceptions.
Let’s start with two close to home. On 11 December, a 28-year-old man, Jermaine Baker, was shot dead during a police operation in north London. In many respects, the scenario recalled the fatal shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan on 4 August 2011, which set off the London riots. This time, though, the official response was quite different. Senior police officers and politicians met family members and neighbours within hours. The Independent Police Complaints Commission, much criticised for its response to previous incidents, quickly announced that a “homicide inquiry” had been opened and a police firearms officer arrested. We don’t know what will happen next, but it seems fair to conclude that the Duggan case was studied as an example of what not to do, and some lessons about the immediate response, at least, have been learned.
The recent floods in the North-west of England suggested a replay of the human suffering and material destruction visited on the west country last Christmas. And the human stories – of inexorably rising water, homes left uninhabitable, precious heirlooms lost – were the same. Mercifully absent, for the most part, however, were the angry charges of inaction on the part of the authorities and recalcitrant insurance companies.
Perhaps Cumbrians are just tougher than the population of the Somerset Levels, but it seems rather that the utilities, the local authorities and the insurers made a better job of their response, having learned from the shortcomings of the year before. There are other lessons from Somerset that appear not to have been learned, such as the need for dredging and the risks of building houses on flood plains. But the initial response to the human emergency appears to have improved.
David Cameron has been a bit of a star in the learning department, too. So much for the cliché of Old Etonian arrogance. The Government’s victory in the vote to join the Syria air campaign earlier this month showed just how much understanding Cameron had taken from his Commons defeat of August 2013. You can approve of the actual policy or not but it is hard not admire the changed approach that brought about his desired result.
The political ground was thoroughly prepared. There was no rush to hold the debate – until the Paris bombings shifted public opinion. Most striking, however, were the arguments Cameron deployed. There was talk of the terrorist threat to UK, but the dominant tone was one of national responsibility. The UK would be derelict in its duty if it “outsourced” its security; the French, our Nato allies, had asked for our help. The appeal was to the UK’s better nature, not to any propensity to run scared. The Syria policy may be ill-advised, but the Government’s parliamentary tactics cannot be faulted.
Then there was Europe. Four years ago, David Cameron was the blackest of black sheep in Brussels. He had upped and left a meeting at 3am after using the UK’s veto to block the Lisbon Treaty. Nick Clegg, it was said, spent the next few days applying all his diplomatic skills to mending fences.
With his promised EU referendum looming, Cameron is hardly going to be seen as “communautaire”, but over the past weeks the Prime Minister has looked and behaved almost as a European. He took a tour of the further reaches of “new” Europe, taking criticism on the chin from the Bulgarians and the Poles. Arriving for last week’s summit in Brussels, his demeanour - even the cut of his suit - appeared somehow more Continental. Has he been taking instruction, perhaps, from Clegg? Or has he finally learned from five years of dealing with Europe that adversarial politics à la Westminster is not how things work across the Channel, and that you can achieve more by making an effort to fit in? Remember, too, Cameron’s flying trip to Paris after the terrorist attacks, and the flicks of French in what he said.
And so to Vladimir Putin: not a man, you would think, to acknowledge error. But contrast Russia’s Syria diplomacy with how it behaved over Ukraine. The flight of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 may have taken Russia off-guard, prompting something akin to panic in the Kremlin. Ukraine is, after all, right next door. But to describe Russia’s response as clumsy would be an understatement; internationally, it was hugely counterproductive.
Russia’s recent diplomacy on Syria has shown a finesse that was nowhere to be seen on Ukraine. Having gained the upper hand abroad with its decision to enter the fray militarily, Moscow set about initiating the first real diplomacy for two years. For the most part, Putin has remained in the background – recognising, perhaps, his largely negative image in the West. Instead, his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has been the point man, with his US counterpart, John Kerry, and the UN. Russia’s standing abroad has improved. The debacle of Ukraine cannot be undone, but it seems that even in Moscow, lessons can be learned.
And finally, consider the United States, where Barack Obama is entering his last year in the White House. In foreign policy, at least, his whole presidency can be seen as evidence of lessons learned from the eight chequered years of George Bush. What Republicans deride as passivity and weakness is better seen as wisdom – the wisdom not to repeat mistakes. How long the lessons of 2001-9 will remain learned, however, is another matter. American voters make that choice in 10 months’ time.
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