William Hague and The End of History

John Rentoul

haguesp 300x203 William Hague and The End of HistoryWilliam Hague, the Foreign Secretary, was interviewed by Andrew Neil on BBC1’s Sunday Politics programme this morning. It was, as ever, an absorbing exchange, including the bits where Neil put to him some of the points I made in The Independent on Sunday today, when I went in search of Mr Cameron’s foreign policy.

Here is the transcript.

AN: William Hague, you came to power wanting to refashion British foreign policy to make it more focused on commercial aspects. That’s what the Prime Minister told us. Now the Prime Minister says we’re in a generational struggle. What changed and did you see it coming?

WH: Well, we’re in both of course. We are putting a huge, much greater effort than before into promoting British exports, links with emerging powers and so on. That goes on whatever the events in Mali, whatever the events in Afghanistan, that is a major part of our foreign policy. But of course the work to counter terrorism goes on. Crises spring up in parts of the world that we have to deal with and Britain has a responsibility to do that. And so we do. I think we’ve learnt a lot from what’s happened over the last decade because our prime focus is on getting countries within the region itself, in this case West African countries, to have their forces trained and equipped to do the military job that’s necessary in Mali and make sure there’s a political process at the same time.

AN: Let’s just have a look at what the prime minister said here. He said: ‘We’re in the midst of a generational struggle, we must beat them militarily, we must close down to the ungoverned space in which they thrive.’ I mean it’s straight from the Tony Blair book of sound bites, and indeed Mr Blair backed you this morning. But I did think your policy was meant to be different.

WH: Well, it is – it overlaps. We supported going into Afghanistan. We supported if you remember what happened in Iraq. But I think we have learnt an enormous amount as I say about making sure that wherever possible it’s not western armies on the ground in Africa, for instance.

AN: There is, the French Army’s on the ground.

WH: The French have acted quite correctly in an emergency.

AN: So it is western armies on the ground.

WH: No, but not for the medium to long term. The important thing – the way I would describe this is think Somalia, not think Afghanistan, in our response to west Africa. What we’re doing well in Somalia – it doesn’t get a lot of attention because we’re doing well at the moment because we have legitimate government – we have African forces doing the fighting that is necessary and we and others give the diplomatic and humanitarian support. That is the model to think about in Mali as well, but that does require training the African forces and most of the people you just talked about, the 330 are going to be engaged in training Africans to do the fighting that is necessary.

AN: I’ll come onto that in a minute. But President Obama, says, quote: ‘A decade of war is ending.’ So he said in his Inauguration last month. You say, ‘ the world will be a more dangerous place over the next decade or two than the last decade or two.’ Now you both can’t be right. You must think the President’s wrong.

WH: Well what the President’s talking about is American forces have withdrawn from Iraq and they are of course scaling down in Afghanistan again as Afghan forces take on their responsibilities. So are we. We are reducing down from 9,000 to 5,000 this year.

AN: But is a decade of war ending, or do we move on to new wars?

A: Well we – the reason I say the world is a more dangerous place is because if you look at the Iranian nuclear situation, if you look at what’s happening now in Syria, if you look at this being crunch time for the Middle East Peace Process which I think it is, and some of these conflicts in Africa, yes there are a whole range of conflicts and potential conflict. But that doesn’t mean that we respond to them all in the same way. And I can’t stress this too strongly, that wherever we can make sure that it is countries in that region that are taking on their own responsibilities we will do that. That’s what we’re doing in east Africa, that’s what we’re doing now in west Africa.

AN: But let’s be clear. As you know as Foreign Secretary the world is always a dangerous place. Can’t think of a time in my lifetime when the world hasn’t been a dangerous place. Most of my lifetime we had the nuclear mutual destruction hanging over us. Are you really saying that the world is about to become more dangerous than the last two decades which saw 9/11, two major ward and insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, more dangerous than that?

WH: Yes, I do think so. It is less stable. If you think about the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, think about the 1990s, before 9/11, people thought – there were even books about ‘the end of history’, how the world had changed permanently –

AN: That worked.

WH: to countries moving to – they were all going to be free and democratic.

AN: You start writing history so therefore you couldn’t –

WH: Exactly. We haven’t reached the end of history and we are in a situation where there are these multiple, unstable situations. That’s why the foreign scene has been busier in the last couple of years than for decades actually with a shear range of crises. That makes it dangerous, but it doesn’t mean you respond to every situation by deploying the British Army into elsewhere in the world.

AN; But in Mali you have. Now the Prime Minister said that British troop deployment would be in the tens to begin with. It’s already in the hundreds, 330. Why? And could it go higher?

WH: Because these are training other people so that we are under less pressure to send our own fighting …

AN; But he [said] tens would do, now it’s hundreds.

WH: Yes, well he was talking about the EU Military Training Mission which was supplying 40 people to many of the –

AN: But he said British troop deployment would be in the tens.

WH: First of all there are no combat troops at all.

AN: So far.

WH: In this deployment and we have no plans to send combat troops.

AN: Will you give a commitment that there will never be British combat troops in Mali?

WH: You can’t foresee every situation, but I can absolutely say we have no plans or current intention to do that: 200 of the 330 you’re talking about are to train the African forces.

AN: I understand that.

WH: Others are to make it possible for our transport aircraft to support the French. This is an intelligent way to give support to the French and the Africans without British troops going to do the fighting.

AN: Just to finish up on Mali. What evidence do you have that the jihadists in Mali in any way represent a threat to Britain?

WH: They represent a threat to the region and we’ve just seen that in the Algeria hostage crisis.

AN; But do they represent a threat to Britain?

WH: Well remember there were six British people killed in Algeria.

AN: Yes but we have people all over the world who are always a danger. Do these jihadists – the fact is, Foreign Secretary, you don’t have a shred of evidence to show these people represent any threat to Britain.

WH: Well I wouldn’t be able to give you on a television programme all the evidence, but I will say – partly agreeing with your question – that a greater threat to Britain, to the British homeland if you like, has come from terrorist operations in Somalia or Pakistan or Afghanistan but –

AN: Which is what your intelligence services are briefing off the record to people like me.

WH: We don’t want what’s happening in the Sahel to grow into one of those threats. Somalia for instance has been through 20 years of being a failed state. The Afghan conflict has gone on all the time since 9/11. We really would be neglecting our duty if we let the Sahel region, including Mali, drift in a way that led it in ten years time to be a great threat.

AN: Let’s say you’re right on this. So let’s turn to defence spending. Now if the Prime Minister says we’re in the midst of a generational struggle and you’ve just repeated, you said the next two decades will be a lot more dangerous even than the last two which were pretty dangerous. Why on earth are you cutting defence spending?

WH: We’ve had to balance the budget in defence. The defence budget was £38 billion overcommitted, many procurement projects that couldn’t be afforded. There has been a reduction – you referred rightly earlier to a seven, eight per cent reduction.

AN: It’s an 8 per cent [cut] in real terms.

WH: That’s less than in many government departments. We are going to remain the fourth biggest military spender in the world. We’re investing in new equipment, particularly in surface ship, submarines where –

AN: Can I just show you then what you’re doing to the British Army? Look at these figures here. This is how they – you say procurement, but this is manpower. This is up with the Americans the finest trained army in the world and you’re slashing it by over 20, 30 per cent.

WH: And what you don’t have on your chart, or you could have another chart that shows what happens to the reserve forces which are going to be greatly increased.

AN; But if the world is so dangerous, I mean you ring fenced international aid. You ring fenced health. You’re ring fencing now education as well. If the world is as dangerous as you say it is people will be amazed that you’ve not also ring fenced defence.

WH: International aid is also part of dealing with these issues. They are not –

AN: But it’s a pretty amorphous part.

WH: They’re not military only problems. They are political, economic, development problems as well as military problems and we’ve had to get the defence budget into balance. Other countries are having to do the same and do remember that point, we will remain the fourth biggest military spender in the world. We remain able to project military force. We will be one of only two European countries, along with France, able to do that, even after the changes in defence.

AN; But you, I remember interviewing you in opposition. You and the other Tories used to lambast Tony Blair for fighting three wars on peacetime defence budgets. Now you’re into a third war of your own and you’re on an even smaller defence budget than he was.

WH: Actually I don’t recall us saying in opposition that defence would be immune from reductions.

AN: You attacked him for the quality of equipment, you attacked him for not spending enough because we’re always going to war.

WH; We asked for better equipment and work was done and has been continued in this government to make sure the troops in Afghanistan have the equipment that they need. They’re much happier now with the equipment they have than they were five or six years ago. So that work has been done and people shouldn’t underestimate the British defence budget and what the British Armed Forces will remain capable of doing. But often what they have to do will be to support other people, train other people, not necessarily do that fighting themselves.

AN: But don’t you think the voters, and particularly those with connections to the military are fed up with politicians like yourself, deploying our forces into war zones and theatre of conflict, politicians whose generation have never had to face a bullet themselves and you constantly cut their budgets as you do so.

WH: Well look what we’re doing now. We are reducing our forces in Afghanistan and ending their combat role from the end of next year. We did what we did in Libya without deploying British forces on the ground and mercifully, without the loss of a single British life in action, and we’re doing what we’re now doing in Mali to help African forces do the necessary work on the ground. Now that is not putting the British Army or British soldiers into harm’s way and into conflicts unnecessarily. It’s avoiding doing so whenever we can.

AN: You don’t think it will be risky for British troops to be in Mali?

WH: Well a lot of them remember are not going to Mali, just to explain this again. A lot of them will be engaged in training African forces, some of that is outside Mali. Some of the numbers you talked about are servicing and supporting aircraft, not based in Mali. These are not combat troops going to Mali.

AN: Let me come onto Europe. Have your views changed on the European Union since you became Foreign Secretary say from your days when you were Tory party leader?

WH; Not broadly. I am a Eurosceptic. I believe in a successful European Union and that it needs Britain in it and I strongly support what the Prime Minister set out in his speech.

AN: I’m sure you did, because you saw the draft in advance and probably helped him write it.

WH: Indeed.

AN: But what do you say to those Tory backbenchers, and there’s a lot of them, they say you’ve gone native in the Foreign Office. You’ve become less Eurosceptic while they’ve been going in the opposite direction.

WH: No, I don’t think that’s true. We’ve done what we’ve said to do. I’ve introduced a ‘referendum lock’ already, that any further transfer of power to the EU requires a referendum in this country. We’ve got Britain out of liability for Eurozone bail outs, the last country – the last government let us into that. I’ve vetoed the creation of a European military operational headquarters.

AN: That might have been useful for Mali.

WH: We are – no, no, we’ve got plenty of head – we’re not short of headquarters. And so no, we are doing what we set out to do and I must say I spoke to the Conservative MPs about Europe after the Prime Minister’s speech and it was the most united, it was a meeting of Conservative MPs most in agreement on Europe with what we’re doing that I’ve addressed in 15 years of addressing Conservative MPs on Europe.

AN: A lot of the Conservative MPs say that the current terms of membership are unacceptable and that if we cannot get a major change through the repatriation your government is aiming for they would rather leave. Do you take that view?

WH: Well we want a new settlement. We intend to get that new settlement.

AN: but if that’s all that’s on offer, would you leave?

WH: We will use our judgment at the time of a referendum, but we intend to get a new settlement on the principles, the five principles the prime minister set out and then to put that to the British people. Able to argue that we have that new settlement and on that basis we’re going to say in the European Union. That’s our intention.

AN: Let me show you what you said in October 2011. You said that an in out referendum would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a different time. Well just over a year later we’re still in difficult times, I think we can both agree on that, and by your own lights you’ve just created four years of uncertainty.

WH: No, well actually I don’t think we have because the in out referendum –

AN: You’ve just said you have.

WH: No, the In Out referendum now would be the wrong thing to do. Choosing between our membership of the EU as it stands today and leaving the European Union would be the wrong thing to do.

AN: So rather than two months of uncertainty we’ll have four years? Because at least if you had it now we could get rid of the uncertainty.

WH: This debate won’t go away and therefore we have decided to –

AN: Well it would if you had the referendum now.

WH: No, but then that would be the wrong question at the wrong time. The right question at the right time is between an improved relationship between Britain and the European Union or leaving. And this is the realistic timetable on which to have it and incidentally, as we just saw from your interview with Jim Murphy, there would be much more uncertainty under Labour’s proposal which is to attack us for doing that but not rule out doing it themselves.

AN: A YouGov poll today shows that the majority of people support same-sex marriage. The vote’s coming up on Tuesday. Are you disappointed that so many in your party on the backbenchers are out of tune with modern Britain on this?

WH: It’s a free vote.

AN: No I know that, but are you disappointed that they’re not in tune with modern opinion?

WH: It’s for them to make their own decisions, as it is when we have votes on abortion laws or capital punishment.

AN: When did you change your mind on this?

WH: Well, this is a new issue.

AN; When did you become in favour of it?

WH: Over the last couple of years. It’s become an issue that is here in the western world and it’s an issue in France, it’s an issue in the United States. If we weren’t debating it now it would instead be a big issue in the next General Election and we’d all have to say where we stood then anyway.

AN: So you’re a recent convert to gay marriage?

WH: Well I think as times have changed, civil partnerships came in, we all knew – you were having a good discussion about it earlier. Within a remarkably short period of time those things become accepted. I think the same will happen with this and so I think I look at three things. Is it right in principle? And I think it is. Marriage is an institution which is a very positive institution in our society. We shouldn’t deny it to people on a discriminatory basis. Is there sufficient public consent for it to be a law that enjoys consent? Yes, there is . And is there sufficient protection for those who disagree with it for their own reasons of religious principle? Yes there is. Churches and faith groups who don’t want to have same sex marriages don’t have to do so. I mean on that basis we can vote for it.

AN: Let me ask. What do you say to the growing band of Tory backbenchers who want a job swap between yourself and the Chancellor?

WH: We will not be having a job swap. These things are up to the Prime Minister but if he was here he would tell you very clearly there will be no such job swap. The Chancellor is doing a great job.

AN: Is being Foreign Secretary your last big job in British politics?

WH: Well, I’ve said I don’t want to be a politician in my 60s. I’m 51 now. That gives me a bit of mileage yet. But I did come back into politics to do this job. To support David Cameron and to do this job. And so it’s always been my intention and his intention thankfully that I would be Foreign Secretary. We haven’t set a time limit on that.

AN: William Hague, thank you for being with us on Sunday Politics.

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