David Cameron’s Rwandan distraction

Why the Tory leader prefers to pontificate about poverty 4,000 miles away rather than tackle problems in his constituency: washed-out Witney.

David Chandler

Topics World

By attending a memorial to the 1994 Rwanda genocide, and giving a speech at the Rwandan parliament, David Cameron this week tried to show that you don’t need to have political power (or even to do well in British by-elections) in order to be an international statesman.

Over the past few years, high-profile visits, policy campaigns and speeches about helping Africa and tackling poverty have given a moral sheen and new sense of importance to a whole host of individuals – from politicians to pop stars. And yet, something went wrong for Cameron, leader of the British Conservative Party. He visited Rwanda with 43 Tory volunteers, who are staying for a fortnight to work on small-scale aid projects. But for many in the media, Cameron’s trip has come across as cynical and exploitative.

Disgruntled Tory Party members, unhappy constituents and even Rwandan journalists have all questioned Cameron’s motives. They have also wondered about his political priorities. Unfortunately for Cameron, his trip to Rwanda coincided with floods in England, including in his own constituency of Witney, which got many asking: ‘Why doesn’t he come home and focus on Britain’s problems?’

However, one thing Cameron can be grateful for is that Labour leaders probably have no intention of making party political points at his expense, or in joining what appears to be the popular critical consensus about his trip to Rwanda. After all, the Brownites, like the Blairites before them, are keen to use Africa as a moral platform in precisely the same way as Cameron has done.

The Daily Mail’s front page asked of Cameron’s trip: ‘One million victims of the deluge, so where’s the Rt Hon member for washed-out Witney?’ A local Rwandan journalist embarrassed Cameron by asking him: ‘What do you have to say about continuing with your visit to Rwanda when part of your constituency is completely devastated by floods?’ (1) Even the Daily Telegraph quoted a senior Conservative MP saying: ‘Rwanda always looked a bit like a stunt. Now it looks like a very ill-timed one.’ (2)

Following the floods, and the Conservatives’ poor by-election showings the week before, the timing of Cameron’s visit to Rwanda certainly seemed unfortunate (3). Some Tory MPs are alleged to be urging a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Cameron when he appears in front of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers; others argue that he must, in future, focus on domestic policy and the concerns of his own constituents.

So, the press and party criticism is less about Cameron’s trip in itself, and more expressive of underlying frustrations with Cameron’s inability to turn the Conservatives’ fortunes around. Because he is facing domestic problems, Cameron’s Africa campaign seems to his critics to be a misjudgement. In truth, the desire to campaign abroad – whether it is Cameron in Rwanda, Gordon Brown trying to become Mr Africa, or Tony Blair relaunching himself this week as a Middle East negotiator – cannot be understood without taking into account what is happening at home.

It is precisely the Tories’ lack of domestic purchase, Cameron’s inability to define a clear constituency of support or to cohere the party around a distinct programme, which has driven him to play up his foreign jaunts. Cameron has developed a taste for political trips overseas. There was also widespread cynicism when he went sledding with huskies on a Norwegian glacier in April last year, apparently so that he could see global warming at first hand (4). He tried to ‘play the statesman’ again in September last year, when he went on a jaunt to India to see the impact of globalisation at first hand (5).

Calling on Cameron to come back home misses the point. Cameron is no different to any other political party leader in suffering from a disconnection from a domestic audience. He is attracted to the problems and issues of other parts of the world like a moth to a flame. Rather than being a distraction from domestic politics per se, for many Western politicians jetsetting around the globe has increasingly become the only credible and meaningful way of participating in domestic politics, of making an impact at home.

The Tories’ two-week PR campaign in Rwanda was clearly a cheap stunt. Why launch policy proposals for electoral power in Britain from 4,000 miles away? There’s only one answer: because launching a policy initiative to tackle global poverty in Cameron’s own constituency or from the House of Commons would have seemed even more of a cheap stunt. The Tories came third in two by-elections last week; for the lame-duck party then to declare ‘this is how to end global poverty’ would have been bizarre. At least actually being in Africa somehow gives the appearance of statesmanship and creates the impression that the policies might have international relevance.

What about the proposals themselves? A report on tackling global poverty has been published by the Conservative Party’s Globalisation and Global Poverty Policy Group, which is chaired by former social security secretary Peter Lilley. The proposals are not even policy proposals in any genuine sense: they are not a political programme for a British government. Rather, Cameron’s policy platform is essentially aimed at the EU: it calls on the EU to drop all tariffs on poorer countries by 2013. Beyond the EU, Cameron and Co call on wealthy countries to adopt similar proposals to their own. So essentially, Cameron was only launching a campaign to launch a campaign – something that could just as easily have been done by any pop star or celeb.

As political party leaders become more and more isolated from their own societies, from clear domestic constituencies, and even from their parties themselves, they inevitably behave more like individual political actors and try to build credibility through stunts and campaigning rather than through policymaking. It is the isolation and weakness of Cameron and ‘his Conservatives’ that make the global sphere appear increasingly attractive, and which means that real political programmes tend to be displaced by highly personalised claims to ‘awareness’ and ‘concern’ about big issues.

The most interesting thing about the Cameron PR failure is that no Labour government voices have yet condemned Cameron’s political judgement or his priorities. No Labour politician has pointed out that the implosion of the Tory Party has led Cameron into increasingly bizarre foreign policy stunts. Why would they be so reluctant to make the most of a clear political misjudgement on the part of the Opposition leader?

One reason is that drawing attention to the cynical use of African poverty and the Rwandan genocide, let alone global warming, would raise awkward questions about Labour’s own love affair with Africa and its own proclivity towards international jetsetting. After all, Cameron’s actions and motivations are little different to those of Brown or Blair before him. Cameron even managed to get Sir Bob Geldof involved in advising his policy group and to big-up the policy report and recommend that the Conservatives adopt it (6) – just as Blair had done with his Commission for Africa report in 2005 (7).

Labour leaders must be hoping that Cameron heeds the calls of his Conservative critics to stay at home. The more he plays politics in the international sphere, the more he mouths platitudes about global warming and the more he seeks to ‘save Africa’, the more Cameron risks exposing the hollowness of Labour’s own policy agenda. Rather than being flattered, Labour must be hoping that its own desire to deflect attention from its lack of any inspirational domestic programme, by emphasising its desire ‘to do good in the world’, is not discredited by being poorly imitated by the Leader of the Opposition.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons analysed what David Cameron’s Ealing comedy told us about British politics. Brendan O’Neill attacked the rise of ‘celebrity colonialism’ and asked if we should make ‘Make Poverty History’ history. The new Amex card, launched by Bono, made Daniel Ben-Ami see red. Or read more at: spiked issue Africa.

(1) Francis Elliot, Rwandans ask Cameron: why aren’t you in flood-hit Witney?, The Times (London), 24 July 2007

(2) Toby Helm, David Cameron: Is it Blackpool or bust?, Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2007

(3) Will Woodward, Conservative dissent dogs Cameron’s Rwanda trip, Guardian, 23 July 2007

(4) See, in his own words, David Cameron in Norway, Gallery, Guardian and for a more cynical take, Paul Hamilos, The Iceman Cometh, Guardian Unlimited, 21 April 2006

(5) John Sudworth, Cameron visit takes in both sides of India, BBC News, 5 September 2006

(6) Will Woodward, ‘Cameron’s campaign: Tory leader outlines trade vision in Rwanda’, Guardian, 24 July 2007

(7) Our Common Interest, the report of the Commission for Africa

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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