Never mind making a great Tory prime minister for Britain; had arch-Atlanticist Liam Fox been born on the other side of the pond he would have made a pretty good Republican presidential candidate. Sadly for conservatives in both Britain and the U.S., any lingering hopes Fox may have had of one day leading his party have evaporated after he was forced to resign as secretary of state for defense.
Fox quit after several days of revelations about his dealings with close friend Adam Werritty. Werritty styled himself as Fox’s advisor although he held no official post, and established a network of think tanks and lobbying organizations which were funded with tens of thousands of pounds in donations from conservative businessmen and lobbyists. Most of them had links to American and Israeli business and security interests. Much of the money was used by Werritty to fund trips around the world, during which he met up with Fox. (The current coverage in the UK is focusing on the latest developments — a good background is here.)
Central to the affair is the Atlantic Bridge organization. This was set up by Fox in 1997 with the aim of strengthening the “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S. It had links to think tanks including the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Security Policy. Atlantic Bridge was later registered as a charity, but was closed down last month after an investigation concluded that its political activities disqualified it from enjoying charitable status.
Fox and Werritty have also been accused of pursuing private interests in war-torn Sri Lanka, in conflict with official UK policy.
Few would argue that Fox did not have to go. At best, he allowed the line between his official duties and his personal interests to become blurred, and at worst he stands accused of promoting a shadow national security policy. Werritty now faces a possible police investigation; further revelations are likely, and colleagues who initially stood by Fox have given up defending him. But Fox’s resignation is a setback for the Tory right, which feels that Prime Minister David Cameron has allowed his party to drift too far to the center in order to get elected and has conceded too much ground to his center-left coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. It’s also a blow to those who advocate strong ties between Britain and the U.S., particularly in matters of defense, and between Britain and Israel.
While there’s no suggestion of a conspiracy to oust Fox, his principled and uncompromising conservatism and willingness to take on the vested interests in the vast and dysfunctional bureaucracy of the Ministry of Defense ensured that he amassed a wide-ranging list of enemies. These lived within his department, the Cameron government, and the political and media establishment. All were happy to get out the daggers at the first opportunity.
Within his party, Fox was widely viewed as the keeper of the Thatcher flame (the ailing Baroness Thatcher made a rare public appearance at Fox’s 50th birthday party recently, a sign of the high regard in which he’s held by the right). This put him at odds with Cameron, to whom Fox lost the battle for the Conservative leadership in 2005. While taking an admirably conservative line on the economy and education reforms, Cameron has in other areas — notably climate change and Britain’s relationship with Europe — pursued liberal policies unpopular with grassroots Tories, obsessed as he is with presenting a kinder, gentler face to the British public (“decontaminating the brand,” as he has called it).
As defense secretary, Fox stood up to Cameron by warning that proposed defense cuts were too severe, opposed the setting of arbitrary deadlines for withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan, and criticized plans to increase Britain’s foreign aid budget, claiming the money would be better spent on defense. He also opposed proposals to expand military initiatives between European Union states at the expense of NATO, epitomized by a ludicrous plan for Britain to share aircraft carriers with France. Fox upset the civil servants at the MoD from day one, pledging to tackle waste, overspending, and a culture of resistance to reform.
If Fox’s positions on Britain’s relations with America and Israel and his views on climate change, Europe, and other issues caused friction within the Conservative Party, it’s nothing to the opprobrium they earned him among the wider British political and media establishments. Fox’s politics are not only anathema to most Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, as well as to centrist Tories; they’re also unfashionable among much of the media, and in some cases even to nominally right-leaning newspapers.
There’s a distinct strain of anti-American snobbery running through these cliques that transcends political differences. There’s also a nasty streak of anti-Semitism — often masquerading as legitimate opposition to the policies of Israel — rooted in a long-standing disdain for Jews among the sections of the British upper classes. This is kept fashionable by the “camel corps” of Arabists in the Foreign Office, left-wing academics, and those who feel that the West’s problems with Islamist terrorism would be solved overnight if that troublesome little state of Israel would just do the decent thing and disappear. Cameron himself has not been averse to a spot of Israel baiting. (PJM’s Soeren Kern has written an excellent primer on British anti-Semitism.)
The latest twist on the Fox affair is that Werritty had links with Mossad and plotted with Iranian opposition groups to topple Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Assuming the story is true (notwithstanding the fact that leaving a trail which leads back to the British defense secretary isn’t a very good idea), you’d think that getting rid of Ahmadinejad would be a laudable goal. But the Mossad connection is sufficient to create the impression of sinister goings-on.
The fiercest attacks on Fox’s politics have of course come from the Left, which in its permanently overexcited state is portraying the transatlantic connections forged by Fox and Werritty through Atlantic Bridge as evidence of a neocon plot to take over the world, with Fox as some kind of Dr. Stangelove figure. The front-page headline on the dead tree edition of Sunday’s Observer, the left-wing Guardian’s Sunday sister paper: “Revealed: hidden Tory links to U.S. radical right.” Inside, a two-page spread, complete with a diagram connecting the various “conspirators” is headlined: ‘The Bridge that linked top Tories with Tea Party activists” (the story, without the diagram, is here).
The report names several U.S. politicians linked with Atlantic Bridge, and while it’s no surprise to see Jim DeMint’s name on the list, American conservatives will be amused to see Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman described as members of the “radical right.” “Hidden Tory links” is also a bit of a stretch, given that the involvement of Conservative ministers with Atlantic Bridge was openly publicized on its website and elsewhere. But with the list of individuals from whom Werritty solicited donations — lobbyists for the U.S. and Israel, hedge fund bosses, climate change skeptics — reading like a parade of right-wing villains from central casting, you can’t blame the Left for getting carried away. They even include honorable mentions for the Koch brothers and the “military-industrial complex.”
Fox’s replacement at the MoD is Philip Hammond, who promises to be rather less problematic for Cameron, and more agreeable to both MoD mandarins and to liberal sensibilities. Like Cameron, he’s not overly concerned with ideology: he’ll cut where he’s told to cut and he won’t exceed his brief. The change in unlikely to affect operational relations between British and U.S. forces, but it’s a fair bet that there won’t be any more steak dinners with top American generals.
Fox’s role on the right of British politics will be harder to fill. He clearly made serious mistakes, but the truth is that he’s paying the price for his political convictions. It’s hard to believe the same fuss would have been made had he been a more moderate Tory, and had those from whom Werritty took money been seeking to increase awareness of global warming and pushing for closer ties with Belgium. Fox’s departure is a victory for the vested interests in the government bureaucracy, for Conservative politicians who lack the confidence to champion conservative policies, and for a liberal-left establishment that seeks to run Britain against the wishes of the majority of its people.