Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Does It Matter To You Who Wins The British Election Next Week?


During the American Revolution, Patriots didn't just have the British Army and Hessian mercenaries to contend with. At least 20% of the white colonists, conservatives, were traitors and sided with the British. As many as 2.5 million colonials were Tories or Royalists and after the war almost 100,000 of them fled the 13 colonies for Britain, Canada and other British colonies. Benjamin Franklin's own son, William, was one of them-- a governor of New Jersey who stayed loyal to the crown and settled in London after the British and their conservative allies were defeated.

A week from tomorrow-- Thursday May 7-- the Brits will elect a new government and 632 Members of Parliament. There are 302 Conservatives, 56 Liberal Democrats (so 358 in the coalition) and 256 members of the Labour Party in the out-going Parliament. Right-wing American businessman Bob Dudley, CEO of British Petroleum has endorsed the Conservative Party, as have tabloids the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Eddie Izzard and Stephen Hawking have endorsed Labour.

Polling shows a virtual dead heat and most seat predictions show the Conservatives winning a narrow victory over Labour, although Labour + the Scottish National Party will command a majority. But what about the rest of the world? Yesterday, The Guardian tried figuring out who Obama, Putin, Modi, Hassan Rouhani and Robert Mugabe would be voting for.

US-- Miliband

Obama himself has established a workably cordial relationship with David Cameron, though the UK has looked increasingly marginal to the White House of late: noticeably absent from recent negotiations with Russia over Ukraine and incurring the wrath of Obama by siding with China over new banking institutions.

A re-election for Cameron also raises the prospect of a referendum on Britain leaving the EU, one of the few issues of domestic UK politics on which Obama has ever expressed an opinion.

Though the current president may have less concern for Britain than his interventionist predecessor or likely successors, he would still rather see a British-flavoured EU than an EU where the French and Germans called all the shots alone.

Meanwhile, many of the Republican frontrunners have already began working on their Atlanticist credentials by making trips to London, and would no doubt much prefer if Cameron were to stay on the other end of the special relationship.

Indeed, one of the first indications that Jeb Bush was poised to join the 2016 race was when he turned up with the chancellor, George Osborne, on a tour of Britain’s conservative power brokers last November. Governors Scott Walker and Chris Christie were not far behind with trips that also suggest the GOP mainstream would feel most comfortable with another Tory-led government in London.

But not all Republicans naturally lean towards the Tories. The libertarian-minded maverick Rand Paul may find more common cause with Ed Miliband on issues of foreign policy, where the Labour leader’s role in blocking western air strikes in Syria chimes with a growing strand of anti-interventionism on the US right.

Conversely, it is far from a given that the more hawkish Hillary Clinton would slot in with Labour anywhere near as comfortably as her husband once did.

Russia-- Cameron

“Who does Vladimir Putin want to see running Britain after May 7?” This was the question posed by Nick Boles, a Tory minister, on Twitter recently. Boles was pretty sure he knew the answer: Ed Miliband and the Scottish nationalists. “The man who abandoned the Syrians to their fate and the woman who wants to scrap our nuclear deterrent,” he wrote.

However, according to Sergei Utkin, an analyst working on Russian relations with EU countries, while the British general election is hardly top of the agenda for most Russian politicians, if anything the preference is probably for a Conservative victory. “In general the Conservatives are a known evil, so even if our relations are not so good there will be an expectation that they won’t get any worse,” he said.

Some in the Russian elite with property in London or family studying in the UK might prefer a Labour victory because they felt the left would be more tolerant on immigration, Utkin claimed, but the political elite would be more likely to err on the side of hoping for the status quo.

There is also considerable interest in the rise of the smaller parties, and the disproportionate influence they could wield in a hung parliament with just a few MPs.

Nigel Farage famously said he admired Putin’s political style, and there are reasons to believe the affection could be mutual. While Ukip has not received the kind of Russian money that other European far-right groups such as France’s Front National have had, Farage is a regular guest on the Kremlin’s Russia Today television network, where his message of a broken Europe goes down well.

On the one hand, Farage’s line that Britain, as a sovereign country, should be able to make its own policy decisions and not be subordinate to Brussels resonates with many Russian politicians on a philosophical level. More pragmatically, they also feel that a referendum on the UK’s EU membership would keep Britain and the EU busy for some time.

“Britain leaving the EU would make both Britain and the EU much weaker, which those in the Russian leadership feel would be good for Russia. And if Brussels and London are occupied with the debate over the issue for years, then it will leave less time for working on a tough common foreign policy,” said Utkin.

Germany-- Miliband

At the start of his tenure, David Cameron was viewed as something of a breath of fresh air in Berlin-- smart, charismatic, youthful-- and a good partner for Angela Merkel to work with.

But Europe is always the first hurdle at which relations between British and German conservatives fall. CDU politicians are, without fail, staunch Europeans. The unbridgeable gulf between them and their Eurosceptic counterparts in the UK has often made relations between two otherwise natural political bedfellows quite a challenge.

Cameron’s performance on the international stage has made German policymakers lose their patience. There was his clumsy resistance over not wanting Jean-Claude Juncker to become president of the European commission, and the tactless enthusiasm with which he withdrew Tory MEPs from the European People’s party.

How telling it is, says Gerhard Dannemann, a German expert on Britain, that: “In the event of a European crisis it was once Cameron that Obama used to call. Nowadays it’s Merkel.”

For Germans who have been following the UK election campaign closely, observing everything from Cameron’s consumption of a hotdog with a knife and fork (“awkward,” said one commentator) to the PM-less TV debate (“cowardly” said another), the only issue that truly matters is Europe.

The nervousness that stems from knowing that a Conservative win equals a referendum on Europe by the end of 2017, and all that a subsequent Brexit might entail, is palpable in Berlin.

Berlin will lose an important EU partner should the UK vote to leave-- not just as a trading partner, but in like-minded thinking on everything from immigrant access to benefits, to ensuring that the EU stays competitive. And without the UK, the domination of the southern states, including France, would be almost overwhelming for Germany.

From that point of view Ed Miliband, even though he comes from a completely different political camp, may make a far easier partner for Merkel to work with than Cameron.

China-- undecided

Lively debates about Britain often pop up in China: from discussions of Benedict Cumberbatch and Premier League matches, to the state of Charles and Camilla’s marriage and the wares at Bicester Village outlet shopping centre.

When it comes to next month’s election, however, there is a resounding silence. There is far greater interest in a poll more than 18 months away-- the US presidential ballot-- than the one in a matter of weeks. One of the few bothering to comment-- the HereinUK account on Sina’s Weibo microblog-- has focused on the process: “The must-have skill for every leader in the election-- taking selfies,” it said, beneath pictures of Cameron, Nick Clegg, Miliband and Farage posing with voters.

The political elite are similarly indifferent to the campaign. For the world’s second-largest economy, the UK is just one among many partners. And while the current British government has been accused of cosying up to Beijing, adopting a trade-first policy largely at the chancellor’s behest after it was frozen out over Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, there is no sign that Miliband would take a substantially different tack.

“China highly values its bilateral relations with Britain, but I don’t think it worries much about the election outcome-- it won’t drastically affect Britain’s current China policies,” said Wang Yiwei, director of the China-Europe Academic Network and a professor at Renmin University.

“Their attitudes towards China are quite similar: a closer relationship with China means a new and great opportunity for not just London, the financial centre, but the British economy as a whole.

“Though not having a decisive result and forming a coalition might give rise to concerns about investment efficiency, it’s quite clear that Britain welcomes investment from China. I don’t think the authorities would worry too much.”

Zhao Chen, deputy chief of the European politics department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed: “Whichever party wins the election won’t affect Sino-UK relations and the UK’s China policies much … Labour also highly values the Chinese market.”

If the decision of British voters does end up disrupting relations, it will probably be a long-term and unintentional consequence of other Labour-Tory policy differences. An exit from the EU would reduce the UK’s importance to China.

“Though London is the global financial centre, it is the integrated EU market that makes the UK attractive to Chinese investments. China sees the UK as the bridgehead for the EU and is interested in the 500-million-population EU market rather than just [the] domestic market,” Zhao said.

South Africa-- Miliband; Zimbabwe-- Cameron

Few in South Africa would mourn a defeat for David Cameron. Last year, President Jacob Zuma was scheduled to visit the UK twice but cancelled both times. First he ducked out of Britain’s official memorial service for Nelson Mandela and attended the wedding of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s daughter instead.Then he skipped a summit because, sources say, he was warned that he would “doorstepped” by the media and relations with the UK were frosty.

The leaders’ relationship may never have recovered from Cameron’s first visit to South Africa as prime minister in 2011, when they were poles apart over the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. Many senior figures in South Africa believe that Libya’s subsequent descent into chaos has vindicated their criticism of western military intervention.

Then, in 2013, South Africa rebuked the British government for stopping direct aid to the country after two decades, describing it as “tantamount to redefining our relationship”. Conversely, Labour appeals to the trade union allies of the ruling ANC and is believed to have offered advice to the party during its 1999 election campaign. Aubrey Matshiqi, a political commentator, says: “Traditionally there have been strong relations between the ANC and Labour, and the ANC has preferred Labour to win.”

This time, however, with South Africa focused on trade partners such as Brazil, China, India and Russia, the British election has received little attention. “There are three South Africans who know who Ed Miliband is,” Matshiqi adds. “I could be exaggerating. It might only be two.”

In neighbouring Zimbabwe it appears that political alliances are reversed. Mugabe has never forgiven Labour for reneging on promises of funding land redistribution made under the 1979 Lancaster House agreement. Only this month he thundered again: “Blair, Blair, who was he? Just the prime minister of Britain. I’m president of Zimbabwe.” After Labour’s defeat in 2010, the ageing president reportedly said: “It looks like I can do business with Britain again.”

British-born Piers Pigou, southern Africa project director of the International Crisis Group, says: “They still live with the antipathy towards Blair and Labour. They don’t seem to get that the party today isn’t that close to the Blair and Labour of the 90s. They have a penchant for the Conservative party and prefer them to win, which is kind of ironic considering that the bulk of opposition to re-engagement is likely to come from the Conservatives.”

Mugabe remains under EU sanctions and has no personal relationship with Cameron, but there is said to have been discreet communication between the two governments. Last year Zimbabwe hosted its first British trade delegation in about two decades, hailed by the finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, as “the first step in our normalisation of relations between the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe”. But as for 7 May, says the Harare-based political analyst Ibbo Mandaza, “I don’t think they’ve thought about it. I’ve seen no analysis, no reference to the British election at all.”

France-- Miliband

Unlike good wine, British politics does not travel well in France and vice versa. For years, journalists in Paris would write about the “centre-right government of Gaullist Jacques Chirac,” when it was considerably to the left of Tony Blair’s Labour administration.

As François Hollande’s current Socialist government has moved closer to his country’s traditional partner, Germany, Britain seems to have dropped off France’s radar.

Bruno Bernard, a political speechwriter, and parliamentary adviser to a former UMP minister, said: “If you ask, most French still think Tony Blair is prime minister. Since his election David Cameron has made no impression on France. He’s already been in power for five years and I don’t believe people in France even know the UK is having an election.

“Farage and Ukip are making an impression, but because of Marine Le Pen, who is all anyone is talking about in France at the moment.”

Pascal Canfin, a member of the Europe-Ecology-Green party and a former minister for development in Hollande’s Socialist administration, is concerned about how the UK election will play out for climate and environmental issues.

“In the event the only way the Conservatives have a majority is with Ukip, this will leave the government hostage to climate sceptics. However, I have spoken to Miliband’s advisers and special envoys and their position is much more positive for France.

“Europe is another dimension to the British election, and we have to admit that if there’s a Conservative government that is obliged to make an alliance with Ukip, we’ll have a British position on Europe that has moved very far away from the French position.

“Britain will surely seek to negotiate treaties and repatriate powers to its sovereign government. If there’s a Labour government in alliance with the SNP, there will be a closer ally, able to construct a better relationship with France. Clearly, there are two different paths.”

The former justice minister and MEP Rachida Dati, who served in Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, says Brussels is watching the UK election “with a lot of interest."

“The United Kingdom’s place in Europe, and thus the future of Europe, are at the heart of this campaign. David Cameron has had the courage to propose holding a referendum in 2017, because this meets a deep wish of the British people.

“Certain people in Brussels fear the result, for fear of being shaken out of their comfort zone. I believe Brussels and the member state governments would be obliged to hear the message from Britain. I am personally convinced the change in Europe sought by David Cameron is wished for by many Europeans: a Europe that is less bureacratic.”

India-- Miliband

The British elections have attracted little attention so far in India, despite historic links and the repeated visits of ministers over recent years.

“There was a peak of interest when Cameron came in, but even that wasn’t much compared to the interest [Tony] Blair and [Gordon] Brown generated,” says Dipankar De Sarkar, a Delhi-based columnist and former correspondent in the UK.

Many Indians have been put off by the “anti-immigration rhetoric” in the UK in recent years, and the Conservative government’s tightening of visa policies, he says.

“The whole sentiment has just turned people off the UK here. The rise of Ukip hasn’t helped. Indians for a long time looked at the UK as a gateway to Europe too, but that has also slipped.”

If any Indians are tempted to pick sides, there is a historic tendency to favour the Labour party, seen as supportive of India’s independence from Britain in 1947. However, Cameron has visited India repeatedly and Ed Miliband is “an unknown quantity”, according to Kanwal Sibal, a former senior diplomat.

Miliband’s recent promise to remove tax privileges from wealthy foreigners living in Britain, a favoured base of many Indian tycoons, has “ruffled a few feathers," Sibal says, which may lead to “a slight preference for Cameron” among the Indian elite.

The local Hindustan Times noted that the Labour party had not mentioned India in its manifesto, whereas the Conservatives, “viewed by many Asians as the ‘nasty party’,” had “made significant mention of India."

The newspaper noted that the Ukip manifesto had mentioned India too, in the context of its desire “to foster closer ties with the Anglosphere."

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has significant support among the Indian community in the UK.

Jaimini Bhagwati, who was India’s high commissioner in London from 2012 to 2013, says that India, though a developing country, has found it easier to “do business” with rightwing governments in the UK and the US, and that many within the emerging power are uneasy with Miliband, who reminds them of an “old-style trade union leader."

“Normally you’d think that a Labour government would be favourable to us but it’s the Conservatives who have their ear closer to the ground in terms of getting things done. At the end of the day, at our stage of development, it’s about technology and capital,” Bhagwati says.

Modi’s first meeting with Cameron took place on the margins of the G20 in Brisbane, Australia, last year. The British prime minister praised his counterpart’s “vision” and stressed India was a top priority of the UK’s foreign policy. After Modi’s election in May last year Cameron spoke of how “Britain and India now both [had] bold reforming governments that believe in free enterprise and progress."

The UK has expanded its presence in India-- the diplomatic mission is one of the biggest in the world-- and has made expanding trade a key objective. On a recent visit, Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, spoke too of “shared security interests” globally and in the region.

The reality, however, is that British efforts to “move the relationship to another level” seem to have left the Indians largely unmoved. Modi has focused his foreign policy efforts primarily on relations in the region, then on the US, with Europe and the UK a long way down the list. He is expected to travel to London after the election, however.

Australia-- Cameron

Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, is probably the country’s most famous anglophile.

And though he has made no public comment on the British election, there is also little doubt the Australian Liberal prime minister would welcome the return of David Cameron to Downing Street on 7 May.

During a visit by Cameron to Australia in November 2014, Abbott described the relationship between the UK and its former penal colony as “a relationship between, if not quite equals, certainly peers, and as important as any relationship on this earth."

Abbott and Cameron have a cordial personal relationship, though they differ significantly on certain policy issues, most notably on climate change. Cameron was quick to congratulate Abbott on his election victory in September 2013, taking to social media to declare: “It will be great working with another centre-right leader.”

Cameron visited the Australian parliament last year while in the country for the G20 meeting, and the two leaders have worked together on issues such as counter-terrorism.

The connections run deeper. Cameron has Lynton Crosby, an Australian, as his campaign director. Crosby ran campaigns for the Liberal party in Australia in 1998 and in 2001. Mark Textor, Crosby’s business partner, is the Liberal party’s current pollster. Textor is also on board as strategic adviser to Cameron and the Tories for the current campaign.

Iran-- undecided

Iran may have more serious issues to worry about than the forthcoming UK election, but who governs next in Westminster is still important for Tehran leaders. The UK is among the six major powers currently negotiating with Iran to find a permanent settlement to the decades-long dispute over its nuclear programme.

Under the Tories, Iran-UK relations experienced peaks and troughs. In November 2011, the British embassy in Tehran was stormed by a mob who ransacked offices and diplomatic residences. It triggered one of the worst crises in bilateral relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution as Britain withdrew all its staff from Tehran and expelled all Iranian diplomats from London in retaliation for the attack. All but nominal relations were severed.

But since the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, took office in 2013, Tehran-London relations have improved. Both countries have upgraded ties to the level of non-resident charges d’affaires and taken significant steps towards reopening their missions.

Later in 2013, Cameron and Rouhani spoke on the phone, in the first direct contact between a British prime minister and Iranian president in a decade.

In 2014, a parliamentary delegation from the UK, led by the former foreign secretary Jack Straw, travelled to Tehran to improve ties. Britain’s chargé d’affaires, Ajay Sharma, has also travelled to Iran a number of times trying to mend relations. A group of Iranian parliamentarians have since visited Westminister, in the first visit to the UK by Iranian MPs in nearly 50 years.

In September 2014, Cameron and Rouhani met in New York on the sidelines of the UN general assembly. It was the first encounter between an Iranian president and a British prime minister since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Despite these improvements, Britain and Iran have not yet technically opened their embassies in their respective capitals. That may change with a new prime minister in Downing Street.

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