Hung Parliament raises questions on UK security policy

The outcome of the UK general election raises serious concerns regarding foreign and security policy. North Korea is committed to resuming negotiations over its nuclear weapons programme. The political alliance set to become the new government of Iraq is bitterly criticised as being sectarian and ‘Iran-orchestrated’. All this and more, in today’s security update…
Oliver Scanlan
7 May 2010

With a handful of seats yet to declare, on Friday morning it seemed certain that the United Kingdom faces a hung parliament for the first time since 1974. David Cameron’s Conservative party, despite securing the largest number of seats and mauling the incumbent Labour Party, has not been able to secure an absolute majority within the legislature.

The Liberal Democrats have suffered a major disappointment. At an election widely tipped by pundits to herald a major breakthrough for the ‘third’ party in UK politics, they will return to the House of Commons with fewer seats. Despite this, it is apparent that they now hold the balance of power within the new Parliament. They could act either to keep the incumbent Labour party in power, or else use their numbers to take the Conservatives past the critical 326 majority mark. In either case this might involve a formal coalition or else a looser understanding to support the agenda of a minority government.

It is being reported that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is leaning towards an arrangement with the Conservatives. If such a coalition becomes reality, the implications for Britain’s security policy, including its relationship with Europe, its stance towards diplomacy with Iran, the Israel – Palestine conflict and its nuclear deterrent, will be profound.

The openSecurity verdict: The Lib Dem manifesto was distinguished among the mainstream parties by a commitment to cancel the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent and support for a Palestinian state within pre-1967 boundaries. They emphasised their unique position among the three main parties as having opposed the Iraq war, and are stridently committed to Britain playing an active role within the EU and in efforts to combat climate change.

These are all aims that enjoy widespread support among progressive elements within British society. On paper, it seems axiomatic that the Lib Dems stand a far greater chance realising these goals through a condominium with Labour than with the Conservatives. However, Clegg’s decision appears to be motivated both by the popular mood within the country, and also the integrity of his own party.

The Lib Dems are a broad church, including several MPs whose views are compatible with the left wing of David Cameron’s apparently reformed Conservative party. In the wake of this latest election, a crushing disappointment after such inflated expectations, raises the risk that, were Clegg to side with Labour, Lib Dem MPs may ‘cross the floor’ to join with the Tories.

Clegg has also previously stated that the party with the largest number of seats and highest percentage of the popular vote would have the moral right to seek to form a government, a position he has reiterated in his overtures to the Conservatives. His feeling may be that the British public would not tolerate the Lib Dems shoring up a battered and discredited Labour party and would punish them accordingly in the next election.

However, from a progressive standpoint, this would be devastating for the UK’s security policy. The Conservatives are committed to maintaining Britain’s nuclear deterrent, with David Cameron alluding to a potential threat from China during the leadership debates. They are also likely to take a hawkish role in Middle East diplomacy.

Michael Gove is a central figure within the Tory leadership and, in his polemic treatise Celsius 7/7, asserted that the 9/11 New York attacks were a direct result of the 1993 Oslo accords, which he castigates as ‘rewarding terrorism’. It is unlikely that a Conservative-led government would take the necessary critical stance towards Israeli intransigence regarding Palestinian national aspirations; they would lean toward military action against Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons programme.

The Conservative party’s stance towards the EU is the arguably the most hostile in its history. Cameron made an early decision to remove the Tories from the centre right coalition within the European parliament, joining a Eurosceptic caucus largely comprising members of the East European ultra right. This has caused consternation within the Obama administration, for whom the UK’s influence in Europe is a key pillar of the ‘special relationship’.

The ‘new’ Conservative party’s commitment to address climate change should not be taken at face value. A survey of the opinions of aspiring Conservative MPs suggest that the majority are highly sceptical; this is to say nothing of conservative activists and commentators such as Tim Montgomerie, Melanie Philips and Peter Hitchens. It is unlikely that the green agenda will be further advanced by a Cameron-led administration.

Finally, regardless of ideology, coalition politics suggest that the Lib Dems stand a far better chance of achieving their agenda with Labour. Because of the much depleted Labour presence in the Commons, to be feasible any ‘progressive’ coalition would need to include partners in addition to the Lib Dems. These would likely include Britain’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas, Welsh nationalists and the Northern Irish SDLP. Because of the inherent fragility of such an arrangement, the Lib Dems would be able to push a more radical progressive agenda, serving as the Labour party’s good conscience.

The dismay felt by progressive voters over a potential Tory-Lib Dem partnership has so far focused on domestic issues such as reform of the electoral system and banking regulation. Although these are undoubtedly vital issues, the impact of such a government on UK foreign and security policy would be as dramatic; it would hobble us diplomatically in Europe, cripple the Atlantic partnership and obstruct efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff and the Israel-Palestine conflict. It would lead to the continued blithe scorn of the UK’s commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and would paralyse the Green agenda for the duration of the next Parliament at least. Thus it must be hoped that the speculation that Clegg’s overtures to the Conservatives are merely an opening gambit in a ‘bidding war’ are well founded.

North Korea ‘committed’ to resume nuclear talks

On Friday, Chinese state media agency Xinhua reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has committed to resume diplomatic discussions regarding the communist state’s nuclear weapons programme. Speaking with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Kim said that he would work with the PRC to create conditions ‘favourable for talks.’ The DPRK quit the six party talks, which are hosted by China, in 2009 after the UN imposed sanctions. The sanctions were in response to ballistic missile tests. Although a positive step, analysts suggest that the dismantling of the North Korean nuclear weapons programme remains a distant prospect.

Iraqi secular parties slam ‘Iranian orchestrated’ Shi’ia coalition

The avowedly secular nationalist Iraqiya political bloc, which won the most votes in Iraq’s March 7th elections, has bitterly criticised an alliance between incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s State of Law list with the predominantly Shi’ia Iraqi National Alliance as sectarian and ‘Iranian orchestrated’. The State of Law bloc has responded by accusing Iraqiya, which draws much of its support from Sunni communities, of pursuing a sectarian agenda themselves. The new alliance is currently engaged in internal discussions over the post of prime minister. It is understood that al Maliki has agreed to step aside. Once an agreement over the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate is reached, it is likely that the State of Law bloc, together with the INA, will form the new Iraqi government.

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