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Tory Story

Monday, June 9, 2008

Former British Conservative Party leader William Hague discusses EU integration, Tony Blair’s legacy, and more.

NEW YORK—Sitting in the lobby of Manhattan’s Le Parker Meridien hotel, William Hague is explaining the British Conservative Party’s position on the European Union. “We want to be in Europe but not run by Europe,” he says, repeating an old slogan from his time as party leader. Hague, 47, now serves as shadow foreign secretary, which means he is in line to become Britain’s top diplomat should his party win the next election, which must be held by mid-2010.

Europe has traditionally been a vexing issue for the Tories, and for the relatively Euroskeptic British public. “We are against closer political integration in Europe,” Hague stresses. “It’s already gone too far.” Though successive U.S. administrations have supported the process of European integration, Hague reckons that “closer political integration is not helpful to America’s long-term interests.”

Why not? For one thing, it could lead to a common EU foreign policy, which would complicate individual countries’ relationships with the United States. Prior to the Iraq war, the Bush administration assembled a “coalition of the willing” that included Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Poland, and other European countries (though not France or Germany). As the journalist John O’Sullivan, a former adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has noted, a single EU foreign policy could “prevent old friends from joining the United States in some future coalition of the willing.

Make no mistake, says Hague: the Tories favor the European common market and prefer a united European approach to Russia. “We regard ourselves as pro-European,” he says. But they are firmly against the Lisbon Treaty (which would advance European political integration) and will “never” support adopting the euro currency.

Any discussion of the EU invariably swings to talk of its enlargement. “In Britain, there is a consensus in favor of Turkish membership,” says Hague. This is mainly for geopolitical reasons. Hague argues that the prospect of EU membership will encourage further domestic reforms in Turkey and also have a positive impact on Turkish diplomacy. Two of the biggest opponents of Turkish membership are France and Germany, though “the German position is not as entrenched as the French one,” Hague says.

‘We are against closer political integration in Europe,’ Hague stresses. ‘It’s already gone too far.’

At home, his party had a smashing month of May; indeed, it was arguably the Tories’ single best month since losing control of Parliament in 1997. On May 1 they performed well in local elections and also triumphed in the London mayor’s race. Then, on May 22, they won a by-election in the parliamentary constituency of Crewe and Nantwich, which was called after the death of Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody. The Labour Party waged “a rather nasty, class-based” campaign,” says Hague. The Conservative candidate, Edward Timpson, was dismissed by Labourites as a “toff” (or a dandy). But in the end, Timpson defeated his Labour opponent, Tamsin Dunwoody (Gwyneth’s daughter), by 19 percentage points and captured nearly 50 percent of the vote.

There is “huge public dissatisfaction” with the Labour government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, says Hague. He reckons that many angry voters are now crossing over and voting for the Tories. But Hague says the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, also deserves praise for crafting a reformist policy agenda. He disputes the notion that Cameron-style Toryism represents a sharp break with traditional conservatism. “All we’re doing is applying conservative principles to today’s problems,” Hague says. During the 1980s, Thatcher had to deal with the Cold War, powerful trade unions, and nationalized industries. Now Cameron is concentrating on families, social breakdown, education, and welfare reform. He has also embraced environmentalism. On this issue, the Tory leadership is in sync with the relatively green-friendly John McCain, who addressed the annual Conservative Party conference in 2006.

After discussing Labour’s travails and Cameron’s efforts to refocus the Tory message, I ask Hague for his thoughts on the chief accomplishments of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Hague points to the Northern Ireland peace accord, known as the “Good Friday Agreement,” which was signed in 1998. Blair “should get a lot of credit,” says Hague, who marvels over the transformation of Northern Ireland. “There [has been] such a dramatic change in the quality of life and the economic and personal opportunities.” He emphasizes that the peace settlement “is genuine—Americans need to know that. And it is cause for great celebration.”

As for “New Labour” generally, Hague says that “it turned out to be a rather empty vessel.” In his view, Blair failed to achieve permanent, substantial changes in the public services and failed to transform the essential nature of the Labour Party. Indeed, Hague believes Labour is now “drifting back” to its “old instincts.” Yet one could also argue, as The Economist magazine’s Bagehot columnist did recently, that Cameron’s repositioning of the Tories amounts to New Labour’s “final triumph.”

Of course, Blair’s legacy is inseparable from the Iraq war. Hague was—and remains—a supporter of the war; but he acknowledges that the British public has turned fiercely against it and will “inevitably be more skeptical” of future calls for military intervention. As for Iran, Hague regrets that, at least politically, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in late 2007 removed the sense of urgency about the nuclear problem. That was “unfortunate,” he says, because the problem hasn’t gone away and the West must be united in dealing with Tehran. He’s all for a “carrot-and-stick” approach, but insists that the “stick” must be bigger.

Duncan Currie is managing editor of THE AMERICAN.

Image by Getty.


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