Suddenly, Britain’s Tory leader doesn’t seem so wet any more.
I have been critical of British Tory leader David Cameron in these pages and elsewhere, mainly along the lines that he was wet and lacking in gumption and leadership.
It is time to say, therefore, that in his first real test, the Georgian crisis, he has shown backbone enough to put the doomed and useless government of Gordon Brown and much of the leadership of Western Europe to shame. Cameron is looking like a leader.
While, characteristically, the Brown government dithered ineffectually, Cameron became the first Western leader to fly to Georgia and stand side by side with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Georgia’s other leaders and parliament, declaring:
The world’s oldest democracy must stand with one of the newest when it’s been illegally invaded by another country.
We wanted to come to express the strongest possible support for Georgia, its independence and integrity.
While not condoning the obvious faults of the Georgian government, it was the first clear and courageous sign to Georgia — and Russia — that it had not been abandoned by Europe. It was the sort of thing a Reagan, a Thatcher, or a Churchill might have done — an instinctive affirmation of right against wrong. With all Georgia under imminent threat of direct Russian military attack, Cameron’s visit was also physically brave.
OF COURSE, A LEADER of the Opposition cannot actually do much, and by virtue of that fact is free to be, in a sense, less responsible that the leader of a government in what he says. Anyway, by the time he becomes Prime Minister the situation will probably have changed. Cameron was finessing, but he was also putting his character on the line and making a very public statement committal about the sort of man he is. That matters.
With the shambolic Brown government gaining just 3% of the vote in a recent by-election, Cameron is very unlikely to be leader of the Opposition much longer. He is Britain’s Prime Minister-in-waiting, and this makes his gesture far more significant: it is not a commitment that can now be easily repudiated.
It was of immense importance as the first major signal that the British Conservative Party was prepared to lock itself into solidarity not only with Georgia but, by implication with all the small States of Russia’s “near abroad,” threatened by Putinism. “We cannot allow what Russia has done to mean that Russian can and cannot control who can be a member of NATO,” he said. “Russia says she wants to be and we want her to be part of the normal, international community. The response of the West is vital.” These might, of course, be just words. But they might not be.
Cameron also showed good sense and statesmanship by backing Brown’s eventual response and by refusing to criticize the British government for its appearance of indecisiveness. That, however, was done by the Government’s own members.
One former Labour foreign minister was quoted as saying that Brown had made a huge error in prating on about the humanitarian angle of the crisis: “This is a straightforward act of aggression by Russia, not an international development issue. Cameron sussed that and saw that John McCain was right about where the story was going. This trip by Cameron just makes us look wet and dithering.”
WRITING IN THE BRITISH PRESS, Cameron stated, in phraseology that amounted, for those aware of British history, to a deliberate and definite repudiation of appeasement:
This is not some quarrel in a far-away land. What happens in Georgia directly affects us.
For a start, it’s about energy security. One million barrels of oil a day are delivered by the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. This runs right through Georgia, close to the areas affected by the conflict.
What’s more, it’s about global security. History has shown that if you leave aggression to go unchecked, greater crises will only emerge in the future. Today, Russia says it is defending its citizens in South Ossetia. Where tomorrow? In Ukraine? In Central Asia? In Latvia?
It’s clear that stability in the Caucasus — and Russia’s behavior there and beyond — is a matter for the security of Britain and our allies.
Cameron followed this by a call for visa restrictions on Russian citizens wanting to visit Britain. Given the large number of Russian billionaires and obligarchs who at present use London as a playground, emporium and money-mine, this is serious talk and points to a genuine Russian vulnerability. It an area where Britain has more ability to act than the U.S.: New York is not the second home for Russian obligarchs that London has become.
He also called for Moscow to be suspended from the G8 group of industrial nations and for its talks on a partnership agreement with the EU to be frozen: “We must make clear that the path [Russia] has chosen leads to isolation and contempt. We should suspend Russia from the G8 and suspend negotiations on a partnership with the European Union.”
He said that Russia’s elite valued their ties to Europe, particularly “their shopping and their luxury weekends,” and added: “Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges.”
Cameron today is looking as if he has he moral fiber that Britain’s next Prime Minister is going to need, both for steering the ship in a turbulent international situation and, by extension, for repairing the terrible cultural and social damage in Britain today which is, in large part, a legacy of 11 years of Labour misrule.