Two time Pulitzer winner and long time foreign correspondent for the New York Times John Fisher Burns joined me today to discuss last week’s big win for David Cameron and the Tories:
HH: If you had been listening to me a week ago, you would not have been surprised last week by the election of the United Kingdom, because we had our resident prophet from London, John Fisher Burns, for 40 years, a foreign correspondent with the New York Times, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, and as of last week, Isaiah, because he called it. He said don’t be going off of these polls, the Tories always rally. And John Fisher Burns, welcome, you were right, everybody else in Great Britain was wrong.
JB: Yeah, they forgot to count what are now being called the shy Tories, that’s to say people who made up their mind probably some time ago in many cases to vote for the Conservative Party, but because it has become in modern parlance so uncool, chose not to tell the pollsters.
HH: Well, I’ve got so many different questions on this, but I want to begin by saying 75 years ago today, Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland, Chamberlain’s government fell, the King summoned Winston Churchill. 70 years ago last Friday was V.E. Day. England holds elections in momentous times. What did you think, on a scale, it’s not wartime election, but it is wartime, but it’s not that kind of a war. On a scale of momentous results, where does last week’s vote lie between V.E. Day and today?
JB: Well, it’s without doubt one of the most watershed elections since the Second World War. I think you could compare it in many ways with Margaret Thatcher’s first victory in 1979 which led on to the adoption of policies which really did change the course of the country in a way, in ways that are still being felt. And the majority that Cameron won has freed the Conservatives to go ahead with economic policies probably not just for five years, which is the normal term of the newly-elected Parliament, but for potentially ten or more, because the Labour Party itself in defeat is talking about the rebuilding project that is now at hand, taking ten years or more.
HH: Now John Fisher Burns, one of the things I did over the weekend is I drove back and forth from the District of Columbia to Charlottesville, as I said earlier in the show, and I listened to almost six hours of the BBC World Service. And there was much wringing of hands there, because their commentators were more concerned with what had gone wrong with Labour, and what was this meaning for Scotland, and we’ll cover all that. But I want to stick with David Cameron’s unique appeal here, because in all of the understories, the big headline, isn’t it, Cameron pulled it off?
JB: He did, and my view, he’s an underrated, or has been underrated by the media. There was a time when he first won the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1995, as I recall, or 2005, I beg your pardon, 2005, when he behaved in a way that discomforted a lot of conservatives. He declared himself to be the heir to Blair, and became a little bit, I’m not sure what the phrase would be, but he was chasing fads of various kinds. He grew up, and certainly the five years he’s now spent in power from 2010 until now have been very sobering years for him. And I think David Cameron is more secure now in his own sense of himself as a mainstream conservative than he was. The idea that the party had to be dragged to the left in order to be able to regain power was really overtaken by the events of 2007 and the economic crisis. The Conservatives have governed pretty much as you would expect Conservatives to do with economic policies which have been very conservative, in the small c, and very controversial, because they’ve involved cuts of as much as 25-30% in the budgets of many government departments. And a lot of people have been hurt or professing themselves to be seriously hurt by that. So it’s been a sobering period for David Cameron, but he has pulled off a remarkable recovery in the British economy, which is now by virtually every measure the most successful economy in Europe, and one of the most, if not the single most successful economy in the industrial world, to be compared with the United States. So this was, without any doubt, a personal victory for Cameron, although he’s been very careful, very careful, to accept it in a very moderate, modest fashion, and to set out immediately to appeal to the people who have opposed him strongly in the past, whose support he may need now to take on some of the very big tasks that he has at hand.
HH: Now most of the names being thrown into the new cabinet mix are unfamiliar to American audience. And my audience is primarily Americans. So I’m not going to run through that, but with two exceptions, before we get into the issue set. One of those is Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, whom everybody seems to know about, and the other is Liam Fox, who is an Atlanticist, and has been a guest on this show. Boris is part of the political cabinet, and who knows what’s going to happen? I don’t think I’ve seen Liam Fox’ name on any of the appointment lists, yet, have I?
JB: No, no you haven’t, and in a way, that may be, although of course, Cameron is going to have to be very, keep a watchful eye on the party’s right wing as he deals in particular with the issue of Europe, because the right wing of the Conservative Party, who are numerous, and probably account for a third of the party’s 331 seats in the new Parliament, they, he has to win their support in order to have a successful renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union and also to substantially reform the British Constitution in order to give more devolved powers to Scotland and try, if it can be done, to head off a renewed push for independence by the Scottish National Party. But it could be that because he now has his own personal leadership has been reaffirmed by the election, he feels less of a need to have a prominent leader of the right wing of the Conservative Party in any senior cabinet position. And I don’t think that Fox would have accepted anything other than one of the major offices of state, which Cameron was very quick to return to the incumbents who held those posts. I’m talking about the Home Ministry, which is our interior ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Defence Ministry, and of course, what, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the Finance Minister. Within hours of the election, Cameron reappointed them to those posts. And Fox would have had his eye on one of those posts. And clearly, Cameron was not going to bring the right wing Fox into the chicken coop on the basis of, you know, the endorsement that the electorate had given him. As for Boris Johnson, that, I think, is in many ways more interesting. Johnson made a promise that if he were elected to a second term as London mayor, as he was, which was a feat in itself, because London is an overwhelmingly Labour-voting city, and here was an outspoken Conservative winning twice. He was a sort of Bloomberg figure, if you will, remains very popular, and he said he would complete the job. Well, his term as London mayor doesn’t expire until next year, and they’ve come up with, I think, a very deft solution, which is, because everybody thinks that Boris Johnson is likely the next leader of the Conservative Party, and Cameron himself declared during the election, or just as the election began, that he would not seek a third term, which some people thought was a big mistake, but that would make him a lame duck. But it immediately made it seem probable that Boris Johnson would run for the Conservative Party’s leadership sometime toward the latter part of the Parliament which has now been elected, that is to say three or four years out from now, and that he, on present form, is very likely to win the Conservative leadership. And it probably suits him very well to be in the political cabinet where he will have a major voice on matters of policy, but not have to take on ministerial responsibilities, which would be widely interpreted as pulling him away from his responsibilities as mayor of London, which is a city of seven or eight million people, and of course, absolutely central to the…
HH: He’s been a fine mayor. I’ve enjoyed being there with him, but with a minute to our break, John Fisher Burns, the fact that Fox is on the outside looking in, doesn’t that create almost the young England bench the opportunity for a coalition of the un-met to gather in hallways and grumble?
JB: There’s a great potential for that, and there would be, regardless of whether or not Fox, who is a controversial figure even on the right of the Conservative Party, whether or not he were in the cabinet. There’s certainly going to be trouble over the next five years between Cameron and the ministers clustered around him, his loyalists, and the right wing of the party, both over Scotland and over Europe.
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HH: We are happiest when John Fisher Burns stays up late and talks to us. So John Fisher Burns, going back to the election last week, it’s so significant, and a lot of Americans don’t quite figure this out, yet, but I want to cover first the question I had, and I did not hear this once in six hours of BBC coverage. Theresa May, your very accomplished Home Secretary, that means in our parlance here, Homeland Security, and backed up by warnings from MI5 and others, has warned of the growing jihadist threat within London. The Middle East is falling apart. And I think Cameron, I think like Netanyahu and like the Republicans last fall, was aided by the voter, maybe they were shy Tories, maybe they’re afraid to say much, but they think the world’s going to hell and they’re going to stick with the strong horse, at least the strongest horse in their country as opposed to the plausible alternative, Labour in both the UK and Israel, or a Democratic Senate in the United States. How much did domestic security and international affairs play in this election in the United Kingdom?
JB: Do you know, I regret to say as somebody who’s spent most of my working life as a foreign correspondent, I don’t think it was a major factor. And I think in that respect, the United Kingdom and the United States are pretty similar. You know, we remember the days when the slogan that was winning elections in the United States was it’s the economy, stupid. Well, it’s the same here. And on the economy, Cameron had an enormous strength. Even the polls showed that, the same polls that were showing that it was going to be a very close run thing between the Conservatives and Labour, showed that the public by a wide margin trusted Cameron more with the economy. But as for foreign policy, yes, people are concerned. But do you know, people in Britain have a sort of, they’re like one of those Russian dolls. They have a lot of weight in the bottom. They don’t get frightened easily. This weekend has reminded us of the events of the Second World War and how scared Britain was in those dread times of 1940. And I think that that sort of spirit has shown itself again in the face of the jihadist threat. There is no doubt a very great jihadist threat here. There’s a very large Muslim population, only, of course, a small part of which is given to this kind of Islamic extremism, but our security agencies, principally MI5, the domestic security agency, have warned again and again that they do not have the resources to track all of the extremist threats. They have to prioritize, and there’s always the risk that one of these threats will escape them, as happened in 2005 when the attack on the London Transit System killed over 50 people, nothing on the scale of 9/11, but still a shocking event for Londoners, where those attacks took place. So the public has been well primed for this. Indeed, we had a shocking event, as you’ll recall, a couple of years ago when a soldier was beheaded in the streets, decapitated in the streets of London.
JB: So people are primed for that. But I think that the notion that the British public is sitting on edge is not correct. I think people are realistic it may happen, but if it happens, Britain will endure.
HH: Well said, then. I wonder whether Theresa May had something to do with this, but I accept the person on the ground that knows it better than anyone no, it’s the economy stupid. I do want to, though, say, I read over at the Telegraph this afternoon the cabinet reshuffle is Tory declaring war on the BBC. And again, I do back to my six hours of the World Service. I thought our mainstream media was center-left, John Fisher Burns. They were hand-wringing. It was almost David Cameron had lost, and the poor befuddled British voters had done it again, and here’s Scotland leaving…you know, there’s a lot of ways, and first past the post doesn’t work. In fact, I think you’ll join me in finding this ironic. A German correspondent in one of the talkfests who was with the Marshall Fund, and Daniela Schwarzer, said that first past the post did not resonate with the people of Germany. And she said that on V.E. Day, and I thought well, first past the post managed to produce Churchill in time, managed to get Lloyd George around when you needed him. What about that, this war on the BBC and sort of the media of Great Britain refusing to come to grips with a center-right country?
JB: Well, I think you know, there was a very interesting appointment today amongst many others that Cameron made was to promote a man by the name of John Whittingdale, who used to be a personal aide to Mrs. Thatcher, and has been for the past five years chairman of the House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and very much in the spotlight because of the Murdoch scandal, and other scandals involving the media and the police. And John Whittingdale has been a pretty steady hand on the tiller, and I don’t think that he will be a party to beating up on the BBC. But that said, you can take it not from me, but from many leading figures in the BBC, friends of mine, senior reporters and presenters who have said in recent times that there is a left of center bias at the BBC that tends to be, you know, we don’t have time to discuss this, but I think that there is a tendency which has got nothing to do with conspiracy for the media to be somewhat left of center, or in American terms, liberal. And there are plenty of reasons for that, and I think that it may have been one of the things that caused the media, as well as the pollsters, to miss and miss so badly the likely outcome of this election.
HH: I agree, and it’s not a conspiracy. It’s just who chooses, by their nature, to go into the business. I’ve written about this at length. I bet you we agree on this analysis. But I also want to ask if Cameron will have the go for the throat instinct that would come if he immediately put the redistricting bill back? And for the benefit of the American audience here, there are 650 members of Parliament. The Liberal Democrats prevented the Cameron government from moving that to 600 and changing the lines consistent with equal one man, one vote, one woman, one vote, population distribution, which would be a death blow to Labour. Do you think he’ll go for the jugular quickly, John Fisher Burns?
JB: I think he will, because I think it’s something that he can be sure that all 331 members of his own party will support. It was something that was agreed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, but the Liberal Democrats reneged on the commitment when their own wider aspirations for proportional representation were resoundingly defeated by a referendum here four or five years ago. And then they welched on their commitment to go ahead with the part of that package that the Conservatives most wanted, which was to equalize the size of the constituency so that it was no longer the case that it took many more Tory voters to win a seat than it took Labour voters to win seats. And redistricting is an issue I’m sure which is very live in all 50 of the states in the United States.
JB: And it really should be given to an independent commission, but it isn’t. It’s in the hands of the Parliament. Parliamentarians tend to be very short-sided, and very selfish about these things, but I think Cameron will go for that. And it was widely estimated that had he got that from the Liberal Democrats when they were in coalition, it would have yielded another 20 seats to the Conservatives, who would then now have a majority of, shall we say, 30 seats or more, instead of the narrower 12 seat majority they do have. So I think he’s going to do that, and I think it’s going to be hard for the opposition parties to oppose it. The principle beneficiary of the status quo is the Labour Party, and I just don’t see how they can make the convincing argument that it can be right.
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HH: John Fisher Burns, I’ve got five minutes in this segment, we have an eight minute segment. I’m going save the last segment for Scotland. But I’m going to ask you to do the impossible, to explain whether or not there’s going to be a Brexit, and whether or not we have a replay of Harold Wilson’s 1975 fake renegotiation with the EU, or whether we really do have the possibility of Great Britain leaving the EU, and Scotland leaving Great Britain.
JB: Well, I think it has to be said first of all that David Cameron himself, although he promised, and it was a very important promise that kept his party together during his first five years in office, he promised an in-out referendum on British membership of the European Union. But what is less noticed than that is that he has always said, and said vociferously that he wants Britain to remain part of the European Union. He has not said what he would do if the European Union rejects the demands for reform that he will not be putting forward, and putting forward, I think, quite rapidly, because he’s promised that referendum for 2017, which gives him barely two years, if that, to complete this renegotiation. My guess is that he may get less than he wants from Europe, but it will be enough for him to recommend to the British public that they remain part of the European Union. And the outcome is very likely to be an endorsement of European Union membership, because as you’ll recall when the last referendum on this issue was held in Britain, what was it, 40 years or so, there were widespread prognostications that there might be a no vote. In the end, the yes vote won quite easily, and Britain has benefited enormously from its European Union membership. We’re very much part of Europe now. But there are problems. And what makes me think that the negotiations may succeed, and may succeed somewhat more quickly than people think is that there is a growing momentum within the European Union itself, indeed, within two other of the major powers, namely Germany and France, for some of the changes that Cameron favors. Some of them they don’t want – free movement within the European Union, the big issue in Britain because of the out of control immigration here, that’s going to be a difficult one. But he may very well get more, there may be more of a yield from some of the other major European powers because of shifting opinions in those countries than has been widely predicted.
HH: I’m wondering if I’m wrong to hope that he becomes the engine of reform in the EU, and the cabining of Brussels that benefits everyone in the EU, and in the process, mollifies the critics of the EU and keeps NATO strong at the same time. I was glad to see Fallon returned. If you can’t have Liam Fox, I’d rather have Fallon. And I’m glad to have a strong Defence Ministry. But this really has a NATO implication as well, even though they’re not the same thing. If there’s not one Europe, we really have trouble keeping NATO going.
JB: Yeah, I think it’s very easy to fall into sort of drama over this quite unnecessarily. I think that something that many of the media seem to have forgotten in the run up to the election in my view, this is a very steady country. The British public, something Mussolini once said the people are mud. Well, of course, we know that Mussolini was wrong about that, as he was about almost everything else. People are not mud. They’re sensible. They’re reasonable. They are in the United States, they are here. And I think they voted for the most obviously reasonable option available to them in face of some very unreasonable propositions that were put forward by some of the other parties. I think that on this question of Europe, the British Parliament will again be reasonable. There are problems. People in the pubs do feel quite strongly about some of them. But when they’re arrayed against the larger issues, the one that you referred to, which is security in Europe, being bound together as we have been since the founding of NATO and the European Union. I think that the majority opinion will be steady as she goes. But I think Cameron will in fact get some changes, and will indeed in time be credited for being one of the principal reformers of the European Union, and may very well live to see himself celebrated elsewhere in Europe for that work.
HH: Now let’s broach Scotland, and we’ll finish it after the break. People on this, in this audience, know our favorite, the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt and my favorite place in the world is the Isle of Skye in the three chimneys.
HH: And so I mean, it’s unimaginable, isn’t it, 30 seconds to the break, John Fisher Burns, that we would actually see Scotland leave the United Kingdom?
JB: I don’t think it’s going to happen, and when we begin our next segment, I’ll tell you why.
HH: All right.
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HH: John Fisher Burns, tell us about Scotland, because just a few months ago, they voted overwhelmingly to stay in the United Kingdom. Then 50% of the vote returns the Scotland Party, the SNP, with 56 out of 59 seats, I think, in the Scotland…
JB: Well, it’s quite ironic, because the Scottish National Party has been for much of its existence, particularly when it was a much less successful party than it is now, a great proponent of proportional representation. Now, of course, they’ve just won 56 of 59 seats in Scotland, House of Commons seats, on the basis of 51% of the vote. So you can be pretty sure of one thing, and that is the Scottish National Party will rapidly lose its interest in proportional representation.
HH: (laughing) Yes.
JB: But I also think, you know, we need to look at those figures quite seriously. The referendum on independence last year was a win for the no campaign, that is to say no independence from Scotland. But it was the Scottish National Party did rather better than many people had expected. It got about 45% of the vote, as I recall.
JB: There was a clear majority, over 50%, for the no vote. But I think some of these figures can be quite misleading, and in particular, the notion that this new sweep that they’ve made, wiping out the Labour Party in Scotland as they have also virtually wiped out the Conservative Party, which has survived the election with one seat in Scotland, as has the Labour Party, I think that there could be a rapid change in all of this, because it turns out the Scottish National Party, what to the Chinese say? Be careful what you wish for. They’ve been pushing on an open door. And Cameron, one of the very first things he did on Friday after the election result became known was to turn, in effect, to the Scottish National Party and said okay, let’s go ahead, as fast as we can, with additional devolution of powers to Scotland, including fiscal powers, which the Scottish National Party is now demanding, and there is a widespread expectation that what will happen is when Scotland gets nearly complete fiscal powers, saving only the critical issues of defense and foreign policy, the sorts of things which would belong in any case to a national government in London, it’s going to have to be confronted by some very harsh, political realities. And to put it in a nutshell, some calculations, I think reliable calculations, have been that if they get what they wish for, they may be confronted very quickly with a very large hole in their own national budget.
JB: It could be seven or eight billion pounds. It could be larger than that, especially if the oil price does not recover, and in a substantial way. And Scots would then be confronted with losing some of the benefits that they have acquired over the years, benefits comparable to English voters, for example, medical prescriptions are free in Scotland. They are not in England. They can be quite costly, unless you’re a senior citizen. There is no tuition fees in Scotland for university tuition fees. They’re now nine thousand pounds, which is about $14-15,000 dollars a year in England. These are unsustainable benefits without heavy fiscal transfers from London to Edinburgh, and I think what may well happen is as the Scottish National Party in Scotland, as the governing power in Scotland begins to have to deal with some of these problems, we’ll hear a lot less about an end to austerity that was demanded by the SNP in the election just concluded, a lot more about reality. And when that comes, that 51% of the vote that they won may very well have proved to be the high tide of political success for the Scottish National Party.
HH: I think that’s as perceptive as your prediction a week ago, John Fisher Burns, over a longer period of time. So let me conclude with this, with two and a half, three minutes left. As we look out over the horizon, there’s always somebody after Blair, there’s always somebody after Brown. Now, there’s going to be somebody after Cameron. And we’ve mentioned Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. I mentioned Liam Fox, who is a favorite of my show and of my audience. But there’s also George Osborne, who’s done a fine job. But as I look at the Labour bench, I mean, my gosh, it’s like the Canadian Conservatives 20 years ago when they were wiped out. Who is there?
JB: Well, I heard a Labour Party politician on the BBC today describing the Labour Party post-Friday’s election result as being asea, a ship that has been torpedoed beneath the waterline, is heavily listing, and taking on water. And indeed, there are people jumping overboard. One of the most richest men in Britain, Alan Sugar, who is the presenter, if you will, of the British version of The Apprentice, a very successful businessman, a billionaire, renounced his membership of the Labour Party today.
HH: Oh, wow.
JB: You’ve seen also that David Miliband, brother of Ed, the leader, Red Ed as he became known to the Conservative press here, has criticized his own brother from his station in New York where he heads the International Rescue Committee, very severely for the campaign that they ran. There are rather few people left in the Labour hierarchy who are prepared to defend in any way the very left wing campaign that Ed Miliband ran. And it’s difficult to see how this is going to work out, because a lot of the people who are thought of as being potential successors are now associated with the Miliband and Gordon Brown wing of the party. And it may well be that there will be a churn, as there was, by the way, when Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Major were thrown out and the Conservatives yielded to Blair.
JB: There were how many, three or four Conservative leaders before Mr. Cameron?
HH: Yeah, Duncan Smith, William Hague, you bet, at least three.
HH: Yeah, so is, so there is no bright star on the left? There’s nobody who dances on everybody’s tongue as being the person who will lead them out of the wilderness?
JB: No, there was one person whose name was touted over the weekend who I found very interesting indeed, and that was Dan Jarvis, who is, your listeners, very few of them will have heard of him, but he’s a northern Labour MP who was until relatively recently a major, a paratrooper, a highly-decorated paratrooper who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had a profile that’s very appealing to a lot of people who think that the party needs to be brought back to a more centrist position.
HH: Well, let me grab you for three more minutes, John Fisher Burns. I’ve got to ask you about Britain abroad.
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HH: Thank you, John Fisher Burns, has been my guest for this last hour as we reviewed the huge foreign news of last week from Great Britain, where the United Kingdom returned a Tory government with a purer, though narrow, margin of victory in the 650 member Parliament. John Fisher Burns, 40 years with the New York Times, you always ought to have him Googled up. So you were mentioning Mr. Jarvis whose got the British cred as a major, as a retired member of the British forces. And my question is will we be seeing Great Britain, Conservative-Labour together, as active abroad as they have been in the last 20 years, John Fisher Burns?
JB: I think you will, and there’s a very interesting development within the Conservative Party over the weekend where quite a number of powerful figures, some of them in the cabinet, have, are saying that they are going to insist that Cameron responds to the United States appeal for Britain to spend 2% of its gross national product on its defense, which Cameron had begun to walk away from during the election campaign. Those same people want to see a break on Cameron’s pledge to spend .7 of a percentage point on the gross national product on aid. And I think Cameron is going to have to, partly as a way of appeasing the right wing as he goes into these negotiations with Europe, I think he’s going to have to satisfy them on the matter of defense, because our armed forces have very sadly, I’m speaking here as the son of a retired Royal Air Force fighter pilot, they have been cut very severely in recent years. The budget is something in the order of 35 billion pounds of year, let’s call it $60 billion dollars. You compare that with the United States, $700 billion dollars. You’ll see that it’s out of whack compared to the role that we play in international affairs, and even if we do it on the basis of, you know, in proportion to population. So I think you’re going to see a stiffening of Britain’s resolve on defense.
HH: That’s a very good bit of news, and I want to close, I did not know your father was an RAF pilot. What did he fly? And what was his name?
JB: (laughing) His name was Robert, Robert Burns. He was a South African, came here in pursuit of faster airplanes in the 1930s, and ended up flying Spitfires and Hurricanes and Mosquitos, and decided to not go back to South Africa because apartheid had taken hold there, and spent 40 years in the Royal Air Force, and ended up as a senior NATO commander.
HH: This was quite a week, then, John Fisher Burns. You’ve got a new Charlotte, a new princess. You have one of these epochal elections, and you celebrate the 70th anniversary of V.E. Day. I hope you had a wonderful weekend.
JB: Well, I did, and I think that many millions of people in this country did, too.
HH: John Fisher Burns, always a pleasure, thank you for joining us. You ought to Google him, America. Keep your eye on the New York Times, wwwnytimes.com, and your eye on John Fisher Burns. And our hat is off to Robert Burns and all the greatest generation, no matter what they flew, sailed, where they walked or what they drove throughout that great conflict. 75 years ago today, Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland, and Winston Churchill became the prime minster who saved the West.
End of interview.