Tue 05 Apr 2011


The extraordinary wave of popular protests in North Africa and the Middle East has thrown international relations into turmoil.  Old certainties about friends and enemies have been torn apart.  Western governments have come in for passionate criticism from their allies and their own people for relationships with dictators.  The government has been accused of dithering in the removal to safety of British citizens in Libya, of being slow to help people stranded in Egypt, of being too aggressive or too passive.  The Coalition and the previous Labour government both stand accused of doing the wrong things at the wrong time and Britain’s reputation in the world is seen to be suffering.  So, looked at from an entirely British perspective, that is to say in terms of what is good for our reputation abroad, how should we treat with dictators, if at all?

When Tony Blair publicly welcomed Colonel Gaddafi back into the international fold in 2007, accompanied by a lip-smacking oil deal for BP, the Daily Telegraph, not his biggest fan, described, “How British diplomacy has transformed a pariah state into an ally.”  Libya’s agreement to cease funding and supporting global terrorism was seen by many as the former Prime Minister’s most significant achievement.  After all, Libya had been by far the biggest supplier of arms and money to the IRA throughout the armed struggle and cutting that supply route could only further continuing peace initiatives in Northern Ireland.  Today the “deal in the desert” is seen as a piece of wickedness, trading oil riches for the rights of innocent Libyan citizens crushed beneath the heel of a dictator wielding British-made weapons. 

To the west of Libya, in Egypt, both Mr. Blair and the French Prime Minister François Fillon enjoyed holidays with now ousted President Hosni Mubarak.  Is there no end to such government perfidy?

Now, with the gift of hindsight, many in the media have wrung their hands over the way in which Britain’s relationship with dictators have made us the pariah, an enemy of freedom.  The question must be asked, what would any of us have done in their place?  Politicians are charged with protecting Britain’s best interests and that inevitably means dealing with people we might otherwise choose not to.  Winston Churchill was under no illusions about the freedoms enjoyed by millions of people in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.  It would be a brave revisionist historian who claimed it was therefore wrong to ally with “Uncle Joe” to defeat Hitler.

Thousands of British jobs depend on the arms trade.  It is a dirty business but we are rather good at it.  If we did not sell weapons to governments which might use them against their own people somebody else undoubtedly would.  One can argue that does not make it right, but we would all have to pay the unemployment benefit of all those workers if Britain took a “moral stance” on the industry.  There are no simple answers.

Britain’s reputation in the Arab world has been far from glowing for many years.  From the Crusades, colonial rule and the creation of the state of Israel (after support for Arab nationalism had been promised by Britain in exchange for support in the First World War) through Suez and the mix of threats and promises made to satellite states during the cold war, much was done in British interests which was regarded as less than friendly by the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East.  An Arab saying about the British goes back more than a hundred years.  When asked whether one would be wise to be Britain’s friend or foe an old sheik said, “Be their enemy, for the British will always sell their friends but buy their enemies.”  This is no more than could be said about most of the major European powers, but the point is clear.

David Cameron and William Hague are being forced to make policy on the hoof with regard to this “year of revolutions.”  They are not alone in dithering over no-fly zones and embargoes as all over the world governments try to decide which way to jump.  There is growing support for some kind of intervention from Britain, but how many dead servicemen and women would it take if the government did act before the public decided it never wanted to get involved in the first place?

The chances are very slim of Britain emerging with its reputation enhanced from this tidal wave of people power.  Factions, governments, entire populations will believe they were let down at best, possibly even betrayed by us.  Within our own country, feelings will run along similar lines.  Whatever the government does will be regarded as immoral, weak, self-serving, colonialist – take your pick of the accusations, ministers will suffer them all abroad and at home.

How wonderful it would be, if David Cameron could appear at the Dispatch Box and say, “You know what, we have no idea of how this will turn out and every decision we could make would be wrong.”  Having the courage to do that might make us all respect him and his office a little bit more, and just maybe the people of the Arab world would grudgingly accept that while we all very much want to “Do the right thing,” we cannot know precisely what the right thing will, be until it is too late.

Back to all articles