Lights. Camera. No Action please – we’re British

I wonder why we, the British, should expect to be good at foreign policy – or crisis management as we appear to better understand it. Do we expect too much from whatever political persuasion the British government comes? The first ten years of this century on both sides of Whitehall, particularly Number Ten, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and on the Thames side, the Ministry of Defence, have been the decade of incompetence. From 2002 onwards, the British have been governed by the darker officers of La La Land. Only the electronic intelligence gatherers at GCHQ have got it right; but even then, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the MOD, the FCO and the Private Office in Downing Street has shown very little ability to analyze their in-trays. Libya is an obvious example of all this.

When he said he thought it possible that Colonel Gaddhafi had gone to South America, did the British Foreign Secretary really not know that his remark might bring thousands of Libyans onto the streets in the belief that rebellion was on because Gaddhafi was gone and therefore, they wouldn’t be shot at?  Did  the British Prime Minister David Cameron really think it delicate to take 22 arms salesmen to the Gulf states during a revolution during which protesters were being attacked with the wort of weapons his gallant team were pushing?

As for the nonsensical way the Prime Minister was allowed (by an ignorant Private Office) to talk up No Fly Zones without  knowing that the prerequisite for those Zones was Air Supremacy, then even the less informed of us knew that the PM and his advisers understood little about the subject.

There’s more: the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg who gives off  like a soft-sell time share salesman, went on holiday in the middle of the crisis and forgot that he should have stayed in London. Worse, he said it was no different from a football manager going to an away game. Apart from the crassness of Mr Clegg’s statement, what sort of away game was going on in the Swiss ski slopes?

Equally we have to understand that the present British government follows the Media Line. Yet, with the enviable exception of the brilliant analysis from Professor Fawaz Gerges at LSE and, the first class coverage on France 24, no televised pundit nor broadcaster, has got it right over Libya.

To top this sense of the British nanny fails to know best, we have the fiasco of the supposedly invincible Special Air Services minders and their diplomat being publicly exposed during one of the more ill-advised British adventures of this Libyan affair.  Then of course, they were rescued by a British frigate that’s on its way home to be scrapped. Now, if  the British embassy is closed, how is the FCO expected to get on the spot material for assessments? The Joint Intelligence Committee is slow and too often wrong (too many agencies delivering conflicting information); the emergency Cabinet Committee failed to meet at the start of the crisis. On top of this, the Private Offices of the lead departments (Number Ten, FCO & MOD) were briefing madly a few weeks ago that Gaddhafi was about to go.  This is the beginning of the end, they were saying. Beginning of what end? Perhaps what truly is the end in sight, is the British public idea that their government knows better than most what it is doing. This week, there isn’t a single department of government that is considered by  the Parliament select committees to be efficient.

In a famous scene shortly after the appointment of a new culture secretary, the minister was asked if he had seen any recent theatre.  O Yes, he replied, Julius Caesar. Whose Julius Caesar, he was asked. Somewhat startled, he replied, well Shakespeare’s of course.  And there we have it. In Britain, Ministers, even Prime Ministers, do not understand the major questions. A decade of incompetence does not make us expect any better than we’re getting now. The irony  is that Colonel Gaddhafi seems to perfectly understand this.

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