The Daily Star
1 June 2009
By Michael Glackin
A week, they say, is a long time in politics. And so it seems like an eternity since British Prime Minister Gordon Brown proclaimed to the nation that he had a "moral compass" that guided all his decisions and underpinned his policies. Today, less than two years on, his moral compass looks more like a defective traffic direction finder, the kind you rip out of your car because it can't tell right from left, or in Brown's case, right from wrong.
In case you missed it, the United Kingdom is enduring an unending moral sclerosis within Parliament. Members of Parliament from all parties have been exposed for scandalously misusing their generous expense allowances to line their own pockets, enriching themselves and their families. The public outrage is such that some parliamentarians have returned money or decided not to seek re-election. So far, a minister and the Speaker of the House of Commons have been forced out of office.
A fish of course rots from the head down. Brown has been exposed for using taxpayers' money to pay his brother for "cleaning services," and he has also claimed tens of thousands of pounds of public money for running and renovating two different homes. The prime minister's manipulation of the system is far from the most blatant. But the expenses scandal is just the latest to envelop him and call into question his cultivated image as a model of probity and integrity.
The impact of all this on British policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan should not be overlooked. In his struggle to hold the fast disintegrating ring at home, Brown has given up foreign affairs unless it offers him a decent photo opportunity. Unfortunately, the only international photo worth having today usually involves US president Barack Obama, and much to Brown's chagrin opportunities for him there are very limited.
Even allowing for the usual fawning over American presidents that British politicians indulge in to give credence to the "special relationship," Brown's overt desperation to get close to Obama in the hope that some of the president's stardust might fall on him has been embarrassing.
Obama knows a lame duck when he sees one and is already looking beyond Brown. When the president visited the UK in April for the G-20 summit he went out of his way to meet the opposition Conservative leader David Cameron. It was also noticeable that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton took time out to hold a meeting with the Conservative's shadow foreign secretary, William Hague.
The "special relationship" isn't so special these days. Unlike Tony Blair and George W. Bush, or indeed Blair and Bill Clinton, Brown does not enjoy a close personal bond with Obama. At the same time, unlike many of his predecessors, Obama has no great affection for the UK. Whereas Clinton was a former Rhodes Scholar who enjoyed Oxford University and much else that the swinging 1960s in England had to offer, Obama was exposed to a very different side of British culture which saw his grandfather tortured by British soldiers during Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion.
Right now the US president is angry at the UK's response, not to mention the rest of Europe, to his call for more military aid in Afghanistan.
Brown was of course the only Western leader to offer substantial help, and Britain remains the principal contributor of troops to the Afghan conflict after America. But Brown's decision to send just a temporary force of 700 British troops to join the 8,300 already in Helmand and provide security during the August election, fell way short of the thousands of troops Obama was hoping to get from the prime minister as the UK pulls out of Iraq. It also falls short of the 10,000 permanent troops British military chiefs insist is necessary to bring stability to the Helmand-Kandahar region.
But Brown has domestic reasons for resisting Obama's and his own generals' pleas. The human sacrifice - this weekend saw the death of the 164th British soldier in the conflict - and the increasing financial burden, which will see the cost of the conflict hit $3.6 billion in 2008-2009, up from $2.4 billion the year before, are fast becoming unacceptable to UK voters. Meanwhile new laws proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai sanctioning child marriage and marital rape leave many voters questioning what kind of regime British troops are dying to establish in Afghanistan.
Consequently, much as Brown wants to bask in the glow of the "special relationship" he has no intention of adding to his many domestic woes by sinking deeper into an unpopular war. Brown's priority is political survival and further commitments to Afghanistan do nothing to help him in that quest.
Although Brown will almost certainly lead his party into a humiliating defeat in June's European Parliament elections and later national elections, the current scandal surrounding parliamentary expenses may lessen the scale of the defeat because support for the Conservatives has also been hit. Brown may even decide to take a calculated gamble and call a national election in the autumn, six months before he has to, and before he is tainted by anything else.
But whenever the election takes place, the UK will have a new government. And while it too will extol the "special relationship" it will be just as unwilling to pay the price demanded by Washington for it as the current government. The country needs some time alone with its scandals.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.