August 29, 2014

The Carswell Effect: Dishonour and War

Writing about web page http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/douglascarswellmp/100261290/ukraine-and-britains-best-interests/

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.


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  1. Blissex

    Wasn’t Serbia/Yugoslavia dismembered thanks to an invasion of USA and UK and allied forces after months of bombing by the USA and UK and allied forces on the Serbian/Yugoslavian capital?

    If that happened 15 years ago, wouldn’t that be a strong, authoritative legal precedent for the USA, the UK and their allies to start bombing Moscow and invading the Russian Federation to give back the Crimea to Ukraine? :-)

    31 Aug 2014, 12:43

  2. Mark Harrison

    Thanks to @Blisset for your contribution. It’s a great comment, partly for the dry humour, partly because it gets so much wrong in so few words. It gave me enough food for thought that I decided to devote an entire blog to it: here http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/entry/is_crimea_russias/. I appreciate the stimulus.

    02 Sep 2014, 12:50

  3. Jonathan

    It seems rather unfair to insult Mr. Carswell (calling him dishonorable and implying that he is loony and xenophobic) simply because you disagree with his views on foreign policy. Isn’t there an expression along the lines, “play the ball, not the man”?

    A simple Google search shows Carswell’s views on immigration are not as characterized here (“He promotes the freedom to associate and to compete, but for natives only; foreigners should not apply.”):

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/douglascarswellmp/100247981/what-would-a-rational-immigration-system-look-like/

    For my taste, Carswell’s view as expressed in the linked article are a little too unsympathetic the the unemployed, but I think that’s called being a conservative (with a small c). What’s clear is that he wants a system of immigration that treats everyone equally and has democratic legitimacy, whereas the (undemocratic) EU policy is to allow unlimited immigration of (mostly white) EU citizens whilst imposing restrictions on the millions of non-white people who wish to immigrate from outside the EU. Of course, a purist might argue for a free-for-all, but all the main political parties support restrictions on people from outside the EU, so it’s unfair to single out Carswell as anti-foreigner in this regard. On the other hand, the Carswell/UKIP policy is to treat all potential immigrants equally, whereas the current pro-EU consensus favours white Europeans. So if anything Carswell is less racist than the mainstream leaders who support this policy.

    I would agree that we should stand up to Putin where feasible (and we would have more credibility in doing so if it weren’t for the cuts in defence spending that have occurred due to the Coalition’s misguided austerity policies). Carswell may be wrong on this point, but honourable men can differ. I suspect many people share Carswell’s isolationist views (including many of those who were against the removal of Saddam Hussein).

    03 Sep 2014, 12:51

  4. Mark Harrison

    Thanks for your comment. I am willing to be corrected if I underestimated Carswell’s ideas. I have some sympathy with the words on the page you directed me to. But Carswell is a politician, not a detached observer. He should understand the politics of the gesture. He has adopted a party that is riding the current wave of anti-immigrant feeling in the country. UKIP’s own website (here http://www.ukip.org/issues) states: “Save £55m a day in membership fees by leaving the EU and give British workers first crack at the 800,000 jobs we currently advertise to EU workers.” And you are right that “Honourable men can differ.” But where is the honour in party manoeuvres when the world is catching fire, and the effect of the manoeuvre is to drown out the alarm?

    03 Sep 2014, 13:55

  5. Jonathan

    By “riding the current wave of anti-immigrant feeling in the country”, isn’t UKIP simply representing the views of many voters? You could call it “democracy”. My sense is that the anti-immigrant feeling is simply a reaction to the increased levels of immigration since 1997, and especially the high level of immigration from Eastern European countries such as Poland. In other words, people haven’t become more anti-immigrant, they simply find the current level of immigration to be too high. There seems to be a consensus that there is such a thing a too much immigration (hence the restrictions on non-EU immigrants) but the problem here is that the EU prevents countries from restricting immigration from within the EU. Since UKIP’s policy is to leave the EU, it offers the solution to this problem. But the other parties also try to court the “anti-immigrant” vote, for example Gordon Brown argued for “British jobs for British workers”, and the Tories fought the elections of 2001 and 2005 largely on an “anti-immigration” platform, as discussed here:

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/andrewlilico/100027989/what-went-wrong-with-conservative-party-modernisation/

    So is it fair to single out UKIP for doing what the other parties have done to varying extents?

    Now, perhaps the timing of Carswell’s defection could have been better. But the fact that the media preferred to focus on this story rather than Russia says more about their viewers/readers than it does about Carswell. If it hadn’t been Carswell’s defection that dominated the news, it probably would have been something other than Russia. Rather than blaming Carswell for standing up for what he believes, why not identify politicians who share your views on Russia (Liam Fox, maybe?) and criticize them for not making a grand gesture?

    03 Sep 2014, 14:52

  6. Mark Harrison

    @Jonathan, much that you say seems right to me. But I do not agree that UKIP is just more of the same that we had already. I do not blame Carswell for standing up for his beliefs; rather, if he truly believes in liberty and equality as you suggest, then in the present setting he has betrayed them by going to UKIP.

    And you are right that there are plenty of front-bench politicians who should give better leadership, but they are paralysed in the headlights of the UKIP phenomenon, to which Carswell’s defection has added momentum, so it illustrates the wider problem.

    03 Sep 2014, 16:13


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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