The Carswell Effect: Dishonour and War
Yesterday called for a grand gesture. Russia finally admitted its troops were engaged on Ukrainian territory. They were there only by accident, it was claimed, or on holiday. Russia's committee of soldiers' mothers told a different story. The truth of Russia's aggression is more and more beyond denial.
Thus, yesterday certainly called for a grand gesture. The gesture that we got, in contrast, was contemptible: the defection of the MP Douglas Carswell from the Conservatives to the UK Independence Party. This gesture was accorded much importance, "one of the biggest political surprises for years" according to Andrew Pierce in the Daily Mail, and casting Cameron's leadership of the Tory Party into fresh crisis according to Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times.
As Pierce notes, Cameron once wrote off UKIP as "fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists." I have no view on whether or not Carswell is a closet racist. He is an odd libertarian. He promotes the freedom to associate and to compete, but for natives only; foreigners should not apply. On the other two counts UKIP's latest acquisition hardly proves Cameron wrong.
Carswell himself is of little importance. The importance of the gesture is to illustrate how Britain's foreign policy has been undermined by anti-immigration politics. We have become a country that resolves every foreign issue on the basis of three simple questions. These foreigners: Do we know them? If so, do we like them? And might they want to come here to live? And if we do not know them, or know them and do not like them, and if we believe they might want to come here and live among us, then pull up the drawbridge. Perhaps they will go away.
Because of this, we have lost our influence in Europe. We are rapidly losing any serious foreign policy. The world is, unfortunately, a complicated place. For the Carswells it is just too complicated, so they give up any atttempt to understand it or influence it. Instead they ask themselves the simpler question: Do we like foreigners? No, on the whole, they answer, and that decides everything.
The Carswell effect is this. Europe is in the middle of its most serious crisis since Stalin's blockade of Berlin in 1948. And Britain's attention is focused on this silly man. For the Carswells of our time Russia's dismemberment of Ukraine in 2014, as Neville Chamberlain described Germany's descent on Czechoslovakia in 1938, is "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Faced with the choice between resistance and dishonour, the Carswells choose dishonour.
In advocating resistance I do not advocate war; rather I would like us to avoid it. We are a million miles away from NATO troops becoming involved in Ukraine -- and Putin knows it. He expected, with much foundation, that the West would largely acquiesce in his dismemberment of Ukraine. That is why he has been willing to take such apparently risky steps: he did not think they were truly risky. The Western response must disabuse him, by sending substantial economic and military aid to Ukraine. Determined Western resistance now will curb his appetite for risk in future. A "fortress England" approach will only encourage him in further aggression.
But to reach that point, we ourselves must first see beyond the Carswell effect. We need to refocus on the world and our place in it. What should Britain stand for? What should Europe stand for? Eastern Europe and Ukraine have many brave people who see Europe, and the idea of Europe, as a beacon of human rights and democracy. If we betray them (Winston Churchill once said) we will have dishonour, and we will have war.