Alf Young: Real crisis is in political leadership

BEFORE David Cameron’s Amsterdam speech on Europe fell prey to the Algerian hostage crisis, some of its jinxed passages had already been circulated to the media.

BEFORE David Cameron’s Amsterdam speech on Europe fell prey to the Algerian hostage crisis, some of its jinxed passages had already been circulated to the media.

In one, the Prime Minister warned that, without repatriation of the powers he seeks from Brussels, Britain could “drift towards the exit”.

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Drift? Intriguing choice of word that. Arguably, “drift” better describes the inchoate direction of travel of much of mainstream politics, across parties and countries, in the developed West, ever since the roof fell in, thanks to the financial crisis five years ago, when boom, yet again, turned back into a particularly austere bout of bust.

For me, what’s really adrift right now is the capacity of this generation of politicians to measure up to the scale and intractability of the challenges that confront them. Even President Obama, his second term now secure, still teeters on the edge of his fiscal cliff and, in the wake of the slaughter of more young school kids and their teachers in Connecticut, struggles to get a meaningful measure of gun control written into American law.

Today’s politicians still harbour big reformist ambitions and even bigger political dreams. But too often delivery of these aspirations runs into a series of brick walls. Shoddy design. Resource constraints. Public or partisan resistance. Unintended consequences. The road from manifesto promise to implementing tangible, transformative change in society at large is increasingly an obstacle-strewn chasm.

We saw that recently in the Westminster coalition’s distinctly under-whelming mid-term report. Followed by Steve Hilton, Cameron’s former policy adviser now on sabbatical in California, suggesting Downing Street often learns what the government is supposed to be doing from the radio or in newspapers. Predictably that intervention led to demands from ex-ministers and others that an intransigent and overly powerful civil service be brought to heel.

There are, of course, other pressures now in play which can undermine the exercise of effective political leadership. Just consider why the Prime Minister didn’t get to deliver his big speech on Europe. Under pressure to appease the Eurosceptic forces in his own party, he’d been promising it for months.

Then Downing Street fixed on next Tuesday in Germany. Only for Angela Merkel’s people to point out Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty between France and Germany. Downing Street was told, in blunt terms, not to gatecrash their party. Hence the switch, to Amsterdam yesterday.

But the Algerian hostage crisis put paid to that. The seizure of workers, including some from the UK, by militants at a desert gas terminal trumped any prime ministerial speech-making, even on as combustible a theme as the UK’s future relationship with mainland Europe. That long-trailed speech was replaced by a statement to MPs about the unfolding crisis at In Amenas and the fate of British nationals.

The immediate, uncompromising response of the Algerian army, actions taken without any advance warning to other governments, like ours, left our prime minister short of clear answers on what the death toll might be. It also left him – that word again – looking adrift of events shaped, at least in part, by our past interventions in North Africa (Libya and Mali lie immediately to the east and south respectively) and our addiction to the gas reserves that lie there.

The events that put paid for now to David Cameron’s big speech on Britain’s role in Europe, highlight other seemingly intractable issues that confront this generation of western political leaders. The foreign policy challenges of extremist insurgencies in the Islamic world. The knotty question of who gets to exploit global energy resources, especially readily transportable hydrocarbons, like Algerian gas.

Add in the post-crash challenges of thriving in a still globalising market for raw materials, manufactured goods, finance and capital investment, where national tax regimes and sovereign credit ratings are constantly under pressure, and you begin to see why national politicians are struggling to bridge the growing gap between promise and delivery.

As Cameron struggles with Europe, an issue that has proved toxic time and time again for his party, the man who leads him in the polls, Labour leader Ed Miliband, is being portrayed by some as the real inheritor of the mantle of Margaret Thatcher. “The Rise of the Iron Man was the headline of a piece in Thursday’s Guardian. Might he be able to match her for conviction and charisma? it asked. Might he be the next radical leader the country has been waiting for?

It seems there is a group around Miliband that is increasingly captivated by how, in the 1970s, Thatcher claimed the Tory leadership against the wishes of the party establishment and drove through a programme of radical change that “made Britain think again about what was possible through politics”. Might the younger Miliband, having snatched the Labour leadership from his brother against the odds, do something similar?

Beckett quotes one unnamed source saying: “Ed wants to break the consensus. What attracts him to Thatcherism is its insurgency.”

But what evidence is there that he wants to break the consensus? Where is the evidence that his approach to getting growth and jobs back into the economy is radically different from the present coalition’s?

Miliband made it explicitly clear on the BBC Today programme this week that the current legislative provision for a popular referendum on any future Treaty changes in the European Union would stay in place if Labour regains power in 2015. That may be a more softly-softly approach to the circumstances in which the Europe question might be put to the people, but it’s hardly a radical departure. For a more radical approach we must turn to Scotland’s own First Minister. Again on the Today programme this week, Alex Salmond raised the prospect of two sets of negotiations going on with Brussels, following a Yes vote for independence in the autumn of next year. “There will be the negotiations of Scotland seeking to stay within the European Union,” he suggested, “ and negotiations from London seeking to go out of the EU.”

If he means what he said, an independent Scotland, which is resisting joining the euro, would happily sign up for EU membership, even if the rest of the UK is minded to leave. That would presumably be the same independent Scotland that wants, on current plans, to remain part of a sterling monetary union with the residual UK which, by then would be heading out the door. Our First Minister knows a lot about horses. But quite how we would ride those two simultaneously, is anyone’s guess. The odds on the pair of them drifting apart, with grave consequences for their rider, must be very short indeed.