Tom Tugendhat is well connected. His uncle was a Conservative MP and is now a peer. His father was a high court judge. Nor are his contacts confined to Britain. His father-in-law is Pierre Morel, formerly France’s former Ambassador to Russia and China, and the EU’s special representative to Central Asia.
Like Tugendhat, John Baron is a former soldier. Like him again, he studied at Cambridge, and is scarcely disadvantaged. But you won’t find think tanks publishing papers by him, or centre-right papers commissiong opeds (Tugendhat has had two up within the last week). Nor did a mass of his colleagues and political commentators queue up on Twitter to praise his speech in today’s Commons Afghanistan debate.
This is partly a consequence of temperament: Baron is something of a lone wolf. But it’s largely one of outlook. Baron supported the original NATO deployment in Afghanistan. However, he has opposed every significant British military intervention abroad since: indeed, he was the only Conservative MP to vote against the Coalition’s action in Libya in 2011.
But for all the praise heaped on Tugendhat’s eloquent speech, we have no doubt that Baron spoke for more voters. The British Foreign Policy Group finds that “the largest proportion of Britons believe the UK defence forces should only be deployed in three scenarios: a direct attack on British soil, a direct attack on British assets abroad, or in the case of genocide or a large-scale humanitarian crisis”.
“For those who are hesitant or conditional in their support for UK military intervention, the most compelling argument against deployment is ‘to avoid being drawn into conflicts’, followed by the UK’s poor historical track record in interventionism, and the draining effects of military action on domestic finances,” the report continues.
The Taliban may indeed produce such a crisis in Afghanistan, but we are not there yet, and in such circumstances the public, mindful of recent history, might not swing decisively behind a large-scale deployment of troops. That is the brutal context in which to reflect on yesterday’s Commons debate.
After the loss of so many British lives for no lasting gain, Joe Biden’s ruthless disregard for the so-called Special Relationship, and the Government’s helplessness, MPs were humiliated by defeat, agitated by footage of Afghan men falling from airplanes and prospects for the country’s women, and bewildered by the triumph of values so alien to their own.
Some were also worried about America’s further commitments to its allies, now and in years to come, and the few who have served in Afganistan, as Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer did, were agonised by the loss of so many of their comrades for so little, if anything. Theresa May suggested that a western coalition without the Americans should have replicated what they have recently been doing.
We struggle to imagine the former Prime Minister making such a case in government, where the responsibility for being re-drawn into Afghanistan would be more pressing – unless she can persuade us that, abroad, our European neighbours would be prepared to join in and pay the NATO minimum and that, here, such an approach would gain and hold cross-party and voter support.
The voices of the loudest may have been with Tugendhat; but the hearts of the majority will have been with Baron, however reluctantly. That, at least, is the Government’s take, judging by its decision to admit only 20,000 refugees, if that – a smaller proportion of the Afghan population than the same figure was for that of Syria. And, for all the noise in Parliament yesterday, no division and vote was forced.
If you doubt the absence of an alternative security policy, study Keir Starmer’s empty speech. And register the volume of criticism of Boris Johnson both from those who yearn for an interventionist policy and those who wish him no good. (Some on the Conservative backbenches fall into both categories).
It has been relatively muted, presumably because the critics know that no British Prime Minister has made a decisive impact on either America’s President or its public since Margaret Thatcher (though George Bush certainly felt that he needed Tony Blair onside). And even in Ronald Reagan’s day, America put its own interest first, as it must. The invasion of Grenada, anyone?
We aren’t criticising Tugendhat by pointing out that he’s well-connected, nor suggesting that he’s enjoying his political career because this is so. Having a network outside the Commons doesn’t get one elected as Chairman of its Foreign Affairs Select Committee, as he has been: other MPs have to rate you first.
People who once served as a military assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff don’t tend to be slouches, and he is one of Parliament’s most serious thinkers about foreign and defence policy. Furthermore, he has a point: military intervention abroad can work. NATO forced Yugoslav forces from Kosovo. Britain achieved its objectives in Sierra Leone.
It brought democracy of a kind to Iraq – though that outcome doesn’t justify the war, because it wasn’t presented as the original objective. Guns, overseas aid, a navy, the British Council, the capacity to project power, hard and soft: all these are part of what Britain is. Nor did Afghanistan require an all-or-nothing choice between the military action that was taken over 20 years and none at all.
This point was made on ConservativeHome yesterday by Liam Fox, and by him and others in the chamber – not least in a focused and incisive speech from Julian Lewis, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who made a forceful case for air-supported special forces operations if Islamist fanatics bent on terror attacks in western Europe re-establish themselves.
But the inescapable truth is that Afghanistan is teaching us a painful lesson about the limits of western power. Neither America, Britain nor any other western country can, as David Cameron put in when in opposition, “impose democracy at the barrel of a gun. We cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet and we shouldn’t try”.
Equality, diversity, inclusion: these are the values of our time. They invite questions: what kind of equality – of outcome, of opportunity, before the law? Diversity of thought as well as of appearance? How can inclusion include those who want inclusion excluded – such as Al Qaeda, for example?
The Commons didn’t wrestle with those questions yesterday. Indeed, it’s inclined to pass the parcel to the judges instead. But it ran up against their implications, and those of its own imagination and comprehension. MPs gazed appalled at the triumph of values that are altogether different: Islamist ones which have bested the world’s greatest democracy, now deeply divided and apparently declining.
As for Tugendhat and Baron, they will go on doing their Tugendhat and Baron things – the former well-publicised outside the Commons chamber, the latter operating largely within it. And if Baron has been more right than wrong over intervention, and has won less recogition for it than he might, he may be consoled by the old saying about prophets without honour.