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British Shadow Secretary of State for Defense, Dr. Liam Fox, on UK politics and foreign policy

Sunday, April 13, 2008
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HH: A special conversation this hour and next, with one of the bright stars of Europe. Dr. Liam Fox is the Shadow Secretary of the Defense in Great Britain. He’s been Shadow Foreign Secretary as well. In fact, he’s been around English politics for quite some time, and we’re pleased to welcome him here for a wide-ranging conversation on Europe and the future of the Western alliance. Dr. Fox, welcome, it’s great to have you.

LF: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

HH: Dr. Fox, I want to introduce our audience to you, and also on the assumption that many of them kind of know who Tony Blair is, and they may have heard of Gordon Brown, and they know Maggie Thatcher, but they really don’t know how British politics works. I want to walk them into the conversation we’re going to have. But let’s start with a little bio. You’re a medical doctor, you’re from Scotland. Can you give people a little bit of detail?

LF: Yes, I was qualified as a doctor in Scotland. I practice medicine now in the area that I represent in the southwest of England, which is between the cities of Bath and Bristol. As my wife would say, my patients voted for me to have another job. I was never very sure that was a compliment, but it’s worked out very well for me. I went to Parliament when I was only 30 years old, and so consequently, I’ve had the last sixteen years there. And I’ve been very fortunate, as you say. I’ve held a number of very interesting, exciting posts, many of which have led me to a lot of contacts here in the United States.

HH: I’m looking forward to talking to you about your time as Shadow Secretary for Health as well, given your medical background, and given all the things we hear about with the British health care system. But that’s a little bit later in the show. Your official bio says you were born in a council house. I think I know what that means, but would you explain that a little bit to our audience what that’s supposed to convey to the audience in Great Britain?

LF: Well, up until Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister, a very large amount of housing in the United Kingdom was owned by local authorities. But Mrs. Thatcher had a revolution in that she sold that off. So people became homeowners, and got into the private sector of home ownership, who never would have dreamt of that before. So my parents were of that generation.

HH: Now are they still living in Scotland? Do you still have family in Scotland?

LF: Yes, but Scotland comes to visit me a great deal, because where I live is a lot warmer.

HH: Can you explain to us what happened to Scotland in terms of autonomy in the Blair years, and its relationship now? Is it more like California is to the United States? Or is it different?

LF: Well, there’s no federal system in the UK, but the government, the Labour government under Tony Blair, decided that Wales and Scotland should be given a good deal more autonomy. And so we had pieces of legislation passed which basically granted them a say in the running of different elements of their own government, on health care and education and so on. However, because the United Kingdom wasn’t designed for a federal structure, a lot of anomalies now exist. For example, Members of Parliament who represent Scottish seats can vote on issues relating to health and education in England, through the United Kingdom Parliament, but they’re not able to vote on those issues in their own constituencies, because they have no responsibility for them, because they lie with the Scottish Parliament. So we have a number of democratic anomalies that have arisen, and which have not been properly thought through yet.

HH: Generally speaking, are people happy with the changes that have occurred in terms of this devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament?

LF: Well, it was enormously popular at the outset. Polls tend to suggest that they’re not particularly happy with the quality of the government they get, but that may be more due to the politicians than due to the system itself. But I guess that, as they say, you know, you can’t please everybody. And a lot of those who voted for devolution, as it was called, I think thought that by simply changing the system, that would change the quality of the government they had. That was rather more invested in those individuals who were carrying out the government, I’m afraid.

HH: Now Dr. Fox, you’re 46, so you got into politics, I guess as a teenager. What inspired you to get into politics? Are those the Thatcher years that you first get involved?

LF: Yes, I was at school and university during those very turbulent years in the late 1970’s, when we had in the United Kingdom, we had raging inflation, we had unemployment rising very, very quickly, we were being bullied by the trade union bosses at the time, and we lived in the shadow of the fear of the Soviet Union. And Margaret Thatcher was the politician who challenged all those basic assumptions that existed at the time, took on the conventional wisdom, and offered real, fundamental change, not glib change that was about sloganizing. It was about changing the basis on which our society operated. And within a relatively small time frame, a few years, we had a change in, as I said, in the housing model in the United Kingdom, we had inflation under control, the trade unions were brought to heel, we saw the end of the Cold War, all because we had a leader who actually believed in what the country was capable of, and was true to her own ideals, and was willing to be very firm in the face of those who challenged her philosophical assumptions.

HH: And how does someone get into the political game in Great Britain? In the United States, it’s all kind of free agency. But Parliamentary system being very different, obviously, you’ve got to be promoted to a constituency and things like that. Could you give sort of the primer for our audience on how one comes to be a Tory Member of Parliament?

LF: Well, I could probably give my own example. What happens is that the parties, because it’s much more party controlled than it is here, the parties have lists of the approved candidates. When you’re on the approved list for the party, when a district is looking for a new Member of Parliament, they will have to select from that list. I was very fortunate, because the seat that I represent has never actually been held by any other party than the Conservative Party in British history. It’s always been held by us, so it was a very nice area to be selected for. I always put it down to the fact that very close to the end of this election process, I had the flu, and I was extremely relaxed on a large amount of flu medication. And they often say to me the thing that impressed us was how relaxed you were compared to all the other candidates.

HH: (laughing)

LF: So I wasn’t sure that I could remember the meeting afterwards, but it was a very, it was a great surprise for me to be selected. As you say, I was very young. I didn’t expect it, and was very fortunate to be elected for one of the most pretty districts in the whole of the United Kingdom.

HH: Now Dr. Fox, when you go back and look at that, do you keep records of which other Members of Parliament have held that seat? I mean, are you in Disraeli’s seat? Or is it a famous seat?

LF: Not particularly, although I’m only the third Member of Parliament since the Second World War.

HH: Oh, that’s a good seat (laughing)

LF: Yeah, our first Member of Parliament, Sir Ted Leather, he was there from 1945 until 1966. And my immediate predecessor was there from ’66 to ’92. So I guess I’m about a third of the way into my term.

HH: Well, before we get to the break, I do want to ask you about Baroness Thatcher. It was such a lightning bolt for us in the States when she was toppled from the Conservative Party leadership, even though John Major’s a wonderful guy. Looking back at that now, did the Conservative Party go off the rails at that moment, Dr. Fox?

LF: Well, it was a party that at the time, in its third term of office, was doing very badly in terms of the opinion polls. A lot of people thought that there needed to be a change. A lot of people thought that Margaret Thatcher was never going to go voluntarily, as it were. And I was a great supporter, and remain a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher, and I think that from that period on, the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom entered into some sort of collective nervous breakdown which they’ve only relatively recently begun to recover from. And I think that there’s a lesson there for everybody, when you start to put your short term survival before the maintenance of principle, that’s a very dangerous game to play.

HH: Now you also did your years as a party Whip. Can you explain to people what that mean in Parliament?

LF: In our system, of course, which is very much more, I think, party-orientated, the party Whips are there to be the business managers. They’re to ensure that legislation goes through on time. And we’re also, I suppose, the personnel managers. My ability to write prescriptions for my colleagues at Westminster turned out to be a very convertible currency indeed when I wanted something done.

HH: (laughing) And so in all those years, is it valuable experience for a man now doing policy to have actually counted noses and counted votes?

LF: Yes, I think it’s, you know, you learn the ropes that way, because in our system, the Whips also are departmental, so you have a departmental responsibility, and you’re assigned to check all the legislative framework within that particular department. I was assigned to Home Affairs and also to Health, and also to the Treasury. So over the years, I got a fair experience in a number of different policy arenas, and I think that’s of enormous value. Everybody nowadays wants everything to come quickly. They think they can get it without having to go through the painful learning parts of the curve. I’m afraid that there’s no real shortcut.

HH: You also served as personal secretary to Michael Howard. We’ve got about a minute to the break. What’s that entail?

LF: Parliamentary Private Secretary is the very bottom rung of the ministerial ladder. It’s really a glorified bag carrier. But it’s hoped that by a process of osmosis, you might pick up one or two pearls of wisdom. Whether I did or not is for others to judge (laughing).

– – – –

HH: Dr. Fox, I really appreciate this. This is the second and last part we’re going to do on the primer of British politics before we turn to the world. And I’d like you, if you could, explain…I guess we should just for the benefit of the audience make sure they understand the difference between our system and a parliamentary system, and then what the shadow secretaries do, and what that whole organization is about.

LF: Well, in our system, because we don’t have fixed term elections, we could have an election almost any time. We are expecting one between now and the spring of 2010. We have no transition period in the way that you do in the United States. If we have an election on a Thursday, the new government takes office on the Friday, and therefore, were there to be an election, and were my party leader to keep everyone in the same place, I would become Secretary for Defense the day after the election. That requires us to constantly be shadowing, which is why it’s called that, our opposite number, to make sure that we are up to speed with the issues, and that in terms of Parliament, we are constantly holding them to account. So it’s a very different system, but it’s because we would have to form a government really within hours of an election result that we have the system that we do in terms of the shadow government.

HH: Now Dr. Fox, of course, most of my audience will know and love the story of Winston Churchill, and they’ll know he was the Admiralty, and he served in almost every position of government. But he never had Defense, did he? I mean, he had the Admiralty. Did Defense emerge after the War as a combination of departments?

LF: Yes, Defense is a relatively new office. We had the Department for War before that, but that probably doesn’t settle very well with our PC colleagues, so it was known as Defense for a substantial period of time now. And it’s…we, in fact, would slightly alter the structure ourselves by creating a new national security council, which would again change how we view security, to try to bring greater inter-departmental cooperation.

HH: Now as Shadow Secretary, you were asked to take that job by David Cameron, the leader of the Tories in opposition. How, for the benefit of the audience, how does he come to be the leader?

LF: We have a system where the leader is chosen from two candidates by the whole party. And those two candidates are decided by the Parliamentary party. So first of all, there’s a round of voting inside the Parliamentary party. Then, there are two final candidates, and they go to the entire party membership nationwide, who then will decide who the leader is.

HH: And so after this last time, when David Cameron was elevated to the position of Tory leader, he calls you up and he says are you willing to serve, did you have any hesitation? Because I think he’s perceived, and correct me if I’m wrong about this, as being more to the left of you than you, as the party’s, as sort of the moderate face of the party. Is that correct?

LF: Well, on a number of issues. And I think that’s what most British commentators would say, and how they would characterize it. Quite how left and right operates in contemporary politics, I’m not quite so sure, given that we all now seem to exist within the, at least in terms of economics, a consensus, that market economics are the right way to go, which was of course one of the classically defining elements between left and right. I’m not sure exactly what left and right necessarily mean, but I, for the sake of simplicity, would accept that description.

HH: You know, one of the things I want to get to is that the perception I have of Mr. Cameron is that he is not as vigorous about the war as I would have hoped a successor to Thatcher would be, that some of the comments he made during Blair’s tenure, and some of the investigations or comments he made…but I’ve been told by members of your party that appeared on the program that I misunderstand that. What’s your perception of the Conservatives’ view on the war on terror right now?

LF: Oh, I think that there’s a very clear determination that we have no choice but to deal with those who have chosen to confront us. And you know, in Britain, as I imagine here in the United States, there are those who say well, we shouldn’t be involved in these places, we are only creating problems for ourselves by stirring up trouble. You know, there are people who have chosen to confront us, and they dislike us not because of what we do, but because of who we are. They dislike our system of government, our values, what we stand for, our history, our heritage, our conventions, all those things. And perhaps we can choose where to confront them, and maybe you can choose to confront them on the Afghan/Pakistan border, or on the London Underground. But you’re going to have to confront them somewhere, and I think that we have to show the same resolve in dealing with this particular threat to our values as previous generations have shown, because whether it’s our grandparents with the Nazis and fascism in the Second World War, or the communists in the Cold War, each generation faces a threat to its value base. And the question is whether we have the moral fortitude to deal with it in the same way as those who went before us.

HH: I was last in Great Britain in January as a guest of the Oxford Union, and went out to speak to the Union. But it was the same time that the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that Sharia law would have a place in Anglo jurisprudence. And the controversy that erupted was not anywhere near what I thought it would be. And I begin to wonder, is Great Britain in it for the long haul, Dr. Fox, in terms of being a stalwart ally of the United States, in what is going to be a very long war against jihadism?

LF: Well, I think on your first point, I thought the reaction was pretty strong, and I think the Archbishop of Canterbury thought it was pretty strong, too. One thing is very clear. There’s only one type of law in the United Kingdom, and that’s the law that emanates from our parliamentary democracy at Westminster. There’s no other type of law that can be acceptable. And people who live in the United Kingdom need to understand that there is only one basis for legality in the United Kingdom. Are we in it for the long run? Yes, of course, we have to be. And I think one of the issues in the United Kingdom at the next election will be just that. Are we willing to take the measures required to protect our country effectively? Do we understand the complexities of the geopolitics that shape some of the decisions that will have to be taken? And do we understand the structure of the alliances that we want to have to enable it to happen effectively?

HH: What percentage of GDP is Great Britain now spending on its military, Dr. Fox?

LF: Well, it’s about 2.3%. It’s a bit more if you include what’s being spent in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The trouble is that the current defense budget in the United Kingdom is below what is required for the current level of deployment. And that is of course aggravated by the fact, and one of the reasons why I’m in the United States this week is that it’s aggravated by the fact that too many of our NATO allies simply do not contribute their fair share of the cost of what is happening in Afghanistan in particular. And that burden therefore falls on other countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom, or indeed Canada.

HH: It does seem like the overwhelming burden is born by those two countries, the United States and the UK. And we’ll come back and talk about what that means for the future of the West.

– – – –

HH: Dr. Fox, before we go on to the current issues, if the Labour Party had to be in power, thank goodness they had Tony Blair at the head of it is the reaction I had, and most Americans did. We kind of loved Tony Blair, because he stood with America when America needed allies. What’s you assessment of the Blair prime ministership, which is now six months gone, we can take a look back at it, and assess it a little bit better now.

LF: I think in terms of foreign policy and in terms of alliance in particular with the United States, that Blair made the correct decisions. I think that most successful British prime ministers understand they need to be shoulder to shoulder with the United States in terms of security and in terms of foreign policy. And it’s tended not to matter so much whether it was a Labour or a Conservative prime minister, or whether indeed it was a Democratic or a Republican president in the United States. Those relationships have tended to work out of mutual self interest.

HH: What about Gordon Brown?

LF: Gordon Brown has never had the same level of interest, it appears, in foreign policy. I mean, a lot of people would characterize it as that Tony Blair as prime minister was a glorified foreign secretary, and Gordon Brown was the domestic prime minister, which of course makes Gordon Brown responsible for a very large number of the problems we currently have. And the sky is black with chickens coming home to roost in Whitehall at Westminster at the present time. But I think in terms of foreign policy that Blair would have been closer to the Conservative Party on a number of issues than he was instinctively to his own party.

HH: Now give us an update, now we’re almost to the second year of Gordon Brown’s prime ministership. What are political conditions in Great Britain right now? Has the wheel finally turned? Because you folks have been on the opposite end of the bench for a very long time.

LF: Yes, we have. Ten years we’ve been in opposition, although we had eighteen years consecutively in government before that. I’m hoping that’s a record that will stand for a very long time. But at the moment in the United Kingdom, it’s the economy that’s beginning to dominate our political life, I think, much as it is here in the States. In the UK, we now have a government that’s given us the highest tax rates for 25 years, the lowest savings ratio for 40 years. We’ve had the first run on a bank for 150 years. We’ve had a substantial government raid on the pension funds across the country. And a lot of people are now saying well, the government have been testing to destruction the theory that if you simply throw enough money at a problem, that will be the solution. Now they’re seeing they’re taxes are up, they’re seeing that spending has been very high, and they’re not seeing the results. And they want to know where the money’s gone.

HH: Well, it’s not like the Labour Party makes a secret of their redistributive policies. How come they’ve been so strong at the polls? Is it just new Labour is a good brand?

LF: Well, Labour came to office at a time when they had a very good economic inheritance from the previous Conservative government. They had falling inflation, falling unemployment. They had much improved public finances. They presided over a period of some considerable growth, as most Western economies have seen in recent years. And people seem to be quite happy to be paying the taxes, as long as their disposable income was still going up, which it was in a rising economy. Now that that has ceased to be the case, now that inflation is rising, people are beginning to ask very different questions. And as we see the international economic picture deteriorate, they’re beginning to ask why with all these years of growth did the government not leave anything aside for a rainy day, because boy, is this becoming a rainy day.

HH: Is unemployment up significantly in Great Britain?

LF: No, unemployment is still low, but if you look at our economic analysts, they’re now predicting that unemployment is likely to rise if growth slows to the levels that are being indicated, something about 1 1/2% next year, which is well below our trend growth. That would classically suggest that you would get a rise in unemployment.

HH: And is there concern over the credit crisis? Or has that blow been absorbed by the Brits at this point with the takeover of the failed bank, and do you think you’re out of the woods?

LF: No, I think there is a considerable amount of contagion out there. We have had problems because of the credit crunch in terms of banks’ willingness to lend. One in three housing deals in the United Kingdom over the last quarter have fallen through because of the inability of individuals to get mortgages. That has continued to have an effect on the housing market. We saw a 2 ½% fall in prices in the last month alone. So much of the pain that’s being endured here in the U.S. is also being endured in the United Kingdom.

– – – –

HH: Dr. Fox, when do you expect, I kind of thought Gordon Brown would go to the people this spring. He didn’t. He decided not to. When do you expect that he will call for that election?

LF: Well, I’ve never really thought that he would have an early election. I mean, this is a man whose entire life, his entire being is focused on getting to Number 10. And he was never going to give that up quickly and gamble by having an election. I think that it’s likely that he’ll go full term, which takes us to the early summer of 2010. So we may have another two years to go. Labour have a fairly comfortable majority in the House of Commons at the present time, so it’s difficult to foresee any external reason why they could be forced into an early election. But you just never know in our system, and accidents have an amazing ability to happen to governments when they’re trying to avoid an election.

HH: Liberal Democrats are still something of a force inside Westminster. How many are their number, and what’s the future of that sort of third way party?

LF: Well, actually, they’re doing pretty badly at the moment. Their national ratings have dropped to about 16%, which puts them about 6% below where they were at the last general election. And in our system, that would make a great difference in seats, and that could see them reduced to about 20 seats from the number they have, in the 70’s at the present time.

HH: And how many Tories are there right now?

LF: Well, we’re just short of 200, but we’re gathering strength. And we need to get over that 325 mark, so we’d require something of a swing of about 5%. But again in our system, because we’ve got the three parties, and because we have a first past the post system, that small movements can make big differences in terms of the number of seats. The current polls suggest that if there were an election tomorrow, we would see a Conservative majority in the House of Commons, with David Cameron replacing Gordon Brown as prime minister. But you know, I’ve learned in the years I’ve been in politics, never to take anything for granted.

HH: And Dr. Fox, is it in fact the case that almost always the men who are holding, and the women who are holding the portfolios as shadows secretaries, do go into the government with that portfolio?

LF: They normally will, because they’ve done the preparation and they’ll be up to speed with potential legislation. And so it can change, there have been occasions where incoming governments, where the prime minister has either voluntarily changed the posts, or because someone has lost their seat, and as the shadow secretary of state is no longer able to carry it out, so they’ve been forced into making changes. But the normal assumption, the working assumption, would be that the jobs that we hold going into an election are the ones we’d hold the next day.

HH: Now let me ask you about the bi-elections for the benefit of the audience. When a Member of Parliament retires, dies, or just leaves for whatever reason, they’ll have a special election, and these are supposed to give us some hints of what the public is thinking. How have you been doing in the bi-elections?

LF: We’ve not had a very large number of bi-elections in this parliament, and none since Gordon Brown has been in charge for us to be able to make an assessment. We can, however, make some assessments in elections which take place in local government, that is in our local authority districts, which happen on an fairly regular basis. And we’ve been doing very well in those, and we’ve got a very large number of elections coming up in May this year, including the mayoral race in London.

HH: Oh, is Red Ken on the ballot again?

LF: He’s on the ballot this time, and trailing quite badly in the polls, if the polls are to be believed at the present time, to Boris Johnson, the Conservative Member of Parliament, and fairly well known columnist.

HH: Did he go through with the plan to charge cars some outrageous amount of money to come into the city?

LF: Oh, yes. We all now pay for the privilege of being just as congested as we always were.

HH: I just can’t believe that. Wow.

LF: It’s been a nice money cow for the Mayor of London, but those of us who travel in London haven’t…I think initially, we saw traffic fall a little bit, but I think it’s come straight back up to the levels it was before.

HH: A couple more domestic political issues before we turn our world to the world. Ireland – it seems to someone who doesn’t check in that often as though it’s settled. What is the situation in Northern Ireland?

LF: Yes, it’s…peace has come eventually to Northern Ireland. And we’ve seen a huge reduction in the level of violence there. We’ve seen the decommissioning of weapons, and we’ve seen the parties committed to a democratic process. That’s been a tremendous step forward. One of the reasons, I think, is that we saw so much improvement in the material well-being of people in Northern Ireland, that I think that that simply dried up the potential recruiting grounds for the men of terror. And I think it’s a lesson to be learned worldwide, that when you give people a stake, when they have something to lose, they’re much less likely to gamble with it.

HH: Now you are also one of the founders and leaders of something called Atlantic Bridge. Can you tell us what that is?

LF: Well, Atlantic Bridge is a group that a number of us on both sides of the Atlantic formed, because we wanted the special relationship between the UK and the U.S. in particular, to be strengthened as much as we could. And we got together people from politics, from business, from academia, from journalism, on both sides of the Atlantic, and we have a number of events. We had Margaret Thatcher and Rudolph Giuliani doing an event recently in London. We have Henry Kissinger doing one for us in California in the fall this year, which again, will be an opportunity for us to focus on things that we have in common. And in a world where we always celebrate diversity, sometimes it’s good to celebrate what we have in common, too.

HH: Is the website Atlanticbridge.org?

LF: www.theatlanticbridge.com.

HH: www.theatlanticbridge.com. And is membership open? Anyone who’s listening who wants to support…

LF: Yes, anyone who wants to get in touch with us is very welcome to do so. We do a number of events across both the United States and the United Kingdom, and we’re always looking for intelligent, enthusiastic people to come and join us.

HH: www.theatlanticbridge.com.

– – – –

HH: Dr. Fox, you are described as a Euro skeptic, and that’s another big pile to unpack for an American audience. But let’s walk them through what it means to be a Euro skeptic in Great Britain in 2008.

LF: Well, I think that the way I would put it is this, that I want to work with our European Union partners where it’s in our mutual interest to do so, but I want to keep separate the levers that the United Kingdom may require to act in its own national interest if circumstances required it. So therefore, I don’t want to see greater integration into European political structures. What I want to see is a balance.

HH: And what does that mean with regards to currency and to the EEC?

LF: It means no to membership of the Euro, and retaining the Pound, because that means we’re able to keep our own fiscal structures, and our monetary policy, which are, I think, indispensable tools in managing the economy. And it means that we don’t want to see further integration in terms of Europe’s ability to dictate issues such as immigration or law and order issues. We think those are best determined within the United Kingdom. And in my own departmental area, I don’t think that we want to see further European Union military integration, because we want to see NATO as the body which has primacy in terms of our defense relationships.

HH: Now it seems to me, whenever I’ve been in Great Britain over the last decade, and it’s a half dozen times at most, there’s a debate about whether or not to go to the public and get a vote on the Euro, or get a vote on anything to do with the constitution of Europe. Has any vote ever been held? Have the British people ever been asked what they think about this?

LF: Yes, way back in the early 1970’s, when we joined the European Union. The incoming Labour government asked if we still wanted to stay in it. That’s the only time the British public have specifically been given a vote. This is a very important issue at the present time in the UK, because at the last general election, all three major parties promised that there would be a referendum on what was called the European Constitution. Now the European Constitution was defeated by a referendum in the Netherlands, and a referendum in France.

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