The biggest mystery about Westminster today is the survival of British neoconservatism. Most observers would have predicted with complete confidence that this movement would have been utterly discredited after the catastrophe of the Iraq invasion.
Yet it is in rude health. The men and women who advocated the Iraq invasion remain dominant in British public life. Those who opposed it remain marginal and despised.
The Blairites are now resurgent in the Labour Party, and dominant in the Conservative government. Indeed, David Cameron has turned out to be as neoconservative a prime minister as Tony Blair.
He attacked Libya (with calamitous consequences) and would have bombed Syria if he had not been prevented by parliament.
Nor is that all. Mr Cameron’s main political allies are neoconservative. Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, once a fanatical supporter of the Iraq War, is the prime minister’s oldest political friend.
Gove’s bestselling book, Celcius 7/7, played an important role in popularising neoconservative ideas in Britain.
The current Chancellor, George Osborne, is the prime minister’s closest political ally and increasingly seen as David Cameron’s likely successor. He is an out and out neocon with links to the right wing of the Republican Party.
Iain Duncan-Smith, Tory leader at the time of Iraq and another strong supporter of the war, is the eminence grise of the right. Tony Blair remains one of David Cameron’s most respected advisers, especially on foreign policy.
The neocon ascendency is total. There used to be a confident Burkeian presence, skeptical of ideological crusades, in the Conservative Party at Westminster. This still has its representatives, like the articulate and thoughtful Tory MP Jesse Norman and the remarkable Andrew Tyrie, who has fought hard to bring the truth about extraordinary rendition into the public domain. But these are on the back-benches and have no voice in cabinet.
The Conservative Party used to possess men and women with an understanding of the Middle East. They’ve been marginalised. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Alan Duncan, with strong Palestinian sympathies, were ministers in the coalition government. Both are out of a job. More than half the parliamentary party are thought to belong to Conservative Friends of Israel. Shamefully, there is still no such thing as a Conservative Friend of Palestine.
The Liberal Democrats, who opposed the Iraq invasion and have been fair-minded on Israel/Palestine, have just suffered electoral annihilation. The Labour left is moribund. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn stands no chance in the impending Labour leadership contest. The Tory rebels who voted against the Iraq invasion, like the independent minded MP (and former soldier) John Baron, have not advanced. Opposition to the Iraq War, though justified by subsequent events, has meant career death at Westminster.
This is not just unfair, it is baffling. Iraq was beyond question the greatest foreign policy calamity since Neville Chamberlain signed a deal with Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938 and returned to London proclaiming "peace in our time". The men of Munich soon suffered the political obliteration they richly deserved. The men of Iraq prospered. Even though its dreadful consequences are more apparent than ever thanks to the rise of ISIS, there has been not even a scintilla of reward in Britain for the opponents of the war.
Why not? The reasons are complex. The depth of the connection between leading Tories and the Republican right is not widely appreciated. The press (especially the Telegraph and News International) remains staunchly neocon. Most important of all has been the power of ideas.
The continued ascendency of neoconservatism in defiance of the facts on the ground is the consequence of very careful intellectual preparation. Hence the importance of today’s survey of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), carried out by by Spinwatch for the Cordoba Foundation.
Organisations such as HJS have helped to keep alive the Bush doctrines of preemptive intervention, structural hostility to international law and unapologetic insistence (in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary) on the moral superiority of the United States. Paradoxically, this system of beliefs is now rather stronger among the British governing elite than in Washington.
The authors trace HJS back to Peterhouse College, Cambridge, in the early years of this century. They highlight the influence of Brendan Simms, a brilliant young historian who had argued despairingly for western military intervention in Bosnia. They show how in late 2005 the society began extending its influence to Westminster.
I was political editor of the Spectator at the time, and attended the dinner where it was launched. Many of those present (the society’s initial statement of principles was signed by Ed Vaizey, Nick Boles and Michael Gove) were already part of David Cameron’s inner circle.
The authors show how over time the Henry Jackson Society has changed direction. Today it focuses less on making the argument for liberal intervention, and more on making the case against what it calls radical Islam. HJS bears its share of responsibility for the Cameron government narrative on Islam which has taken shape in the Prevent agenda that aims to stop people joining militant groups.
Spinwatch assert that some kind of coup d’etat has taken place within the Henry Jackson Society. Some of its original supporters left, while Douglas Murray (a talented polemicist and strong critic of political Islam) has emerged as a powerful figure.
The Henry Jackson Society pulled off an important success when it was allowed to supply the secretariat to Parliament’s backbench Homeland Security Committee (it has since been obliged to relinquish this position, apparently because of a reluctance to declare its donors).
In another significant moment for the Henry Jackson Society, David Cameron appointed William Shawcross, a trustee of the society, to chair the Charity Commission. In 2012, as a director at the conservative Henry Jackson Society, he had claimed: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.”
There is evidence that he was soon putting a version of the Henry Jackson Society agenda into practice at the commission. At the end of 2014 a Guardian analysis concluded that "more than a quarter of the statutory investigations that have been launched by the Charity Commission since April 2012 and remain open have targeted Muslim organisations". (The Charity Commission responded with a strong denial that it targeted Muslims). Most important of all, however, the Henry Jackson Society has helped maintain a climate of ideas where, more than a decade after the Iraq catastrophe, Britain has a neoconservative prime minister.
When I was a Cambridge undergraduate in the 1970s, Maurice Cowling (a great teacher) used to run the history department at Peterhouse. He dedicated his spare time to the production of painstaking accounts of the connections between ideas and politics.
There is little question that Cowling would have relished this inquiry by Spinwatch. He would have applauded in particular the way a group of Cambridge academics marshalled a set of philosophical principles and then deployed them on the national stage.
The Henry Jackson Society is by no means the only organisation which has played a role in shaping official perceptions of Islam in Britain today. Policy Exchange (a think tank which is very close to the prime minister, and the subject of an earlier profile by Spinwatch) has had an even greater influence.
I regard many of the ideas with which the Henry Jackson has been associated as dubious in theory and disastrous in practice. Yet there are important lessons to be learnt from this Spinwatch study, especially for opponents. The Henry Jackson Society has been rewarded for taking ideas seriously. Its has devoted time, energy, organisation and money to advocating what it believes. Perhaps those who wish reclaim the Tory Party from its unfortunate neoconservative entanglement should follow their example.
- Peter Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He recently resigned as Chief Political Columnist of the Daily Telegraph. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class; The Rise of Political Lying;and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye
Photo credit: Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron takes part in a bilateral meeting with the US President (AFP)