Europe Event Takeaways Politics

DC and London UK Election Discussions: Key Takeaways and Media

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In the run-up to the UK General Election, PS21 held discussions in London and Washington DC on the importance of the election, what it showed about Britain and the implications for the wider world.

Wednesday 22nd April, 7pm, Canary Wharf

Joint event with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP)

Chair: Peter Apps – Executive Director PS21

Rahul Roy Chaudhury: Former Indian government official, Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Jennifer Brindisi: Executive Director YPFP

Marina Prentoulis: London spokesperson, Greece’s ruling party Syriza

For audio of the UK discussion click here

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PS21 Executive Director Peter Apps described the discussion in a blog post for the New Statesman website:

Last week, I found myself chairing a discussion on whether or not the British election mattered, but with a difference: it was a panel made up entirely of foreigners,

You know those interventions where someone’s friends and family come and will explain how much they care about them? This was basically the exact opposite.

With less than two weeks to polling day, it’s striking how little of the election debate within Britain has focused on the outside world. Even on Europe, the focus has been more on Ukip itself than the broader issues.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, has largely ignored the vote. If anything, it has garnered less attention than last year’s Scottish independence vote. 

That might change, of course, but the bottom line seems to be that this particular election — even with #kitchengate, #milifandom, the #Cameronettes and Farage — is just not globally interesting.

Particularly after the 2013 vote not to intervene militarily in Syria, Britain is just seen less relevant and less bothered.

Each of the panellists on Wednesday had their own different reasons for explaining why it didn’t matter.

First up was Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, a former Indian security official. He had just returned from Washington DC and a string of meetings at the State Department, Pentagon and elsewhere.

Had anyone asked him about the UK election there? No.

Did India care either? Not really, he said. India’s government was “ruthlessly pragmatic” in its relationships and Britain was no longer seen as a major strategic partner.

Next up was Marina Prentoulis, lecturer at the University of East Anglia and London spokeswoman for the Greek ruling party Syriza. The Greeks didn’t really care either, she said. Britain was seen outside the eurozone decision-making structures. And Ed Milliband was seen too soft for a Labour victory to be really seen part of a wider backlash against austerity.

American political consultant Jennifer Brindisi gave a somewhat more nuanced answer. No, she said, most Americans did not care — they were already too focused on next year’s presidential vote and none of the British contenders had sufficient “rockstar” appeal (although it might have been different if David Milliband or Boris Johnson were on the ticket).

Within the business community, however, had noticed. The Conservative EU referendum and Labour tax plans both worried them. On balance, she said, they preferred the idea of the Tories.

On national security, Washington has expressed concern at UK defence spending dropping below two percent of GDP. And there’s at least some interest in whether the UK keeps the Trident nuclear deterrent or not.

Finally, US State Department media specialist Barakat Jassem summed up the mood in the Middle East. They really didn’t care either, he said.

That didn’t mean there weren’t some interesting broader lessons, the panel concluded. Indeed, British Nigerian writer Emmanuel Akinwotu said he thought this year’s election was amongst the most interesting in recent years, even if not as significant as 1997 or maybe even 2010…

For the rest of the article click here

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29th April 2015, 6.30pm, Washington DC

Moderator: Sir Michael Leigh, Former Director for Enlargement, European Union, previously Deputy Director External Relations. Member of the PS21 International Advisory Group

Scheherazade Rehman, Professor of International Business/Finance and International Affairs, George Washington University

Peter Foster, US Editor, The Daily Telegraph

Dan Roberts, Washington Bureau Chief, The Guardian

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Interestingly, while the London based discussion concluded the election scarcely mattered for the rest of the world, the DC discussion looked deep into the potential chaos and unforeseen consequences that could follow the election.

In particular, panellists talked of the deep uncertainty over the formation of a new government, with the polls suggesting an extremely tight Labour victory. They looked in particular at the potential instability of a small Labour government effectively dependent on the Scottish National Party.

“It’s going to be incredibly messy”, said Dan Roberts. “This government may just limp through for six months and may force another election. We’re in totally unchartered constitutional territory”.

That, it was argued, raised stark new constitutional issues and opened the door to prolonged instability not yet priced in properly by financial markets.

Britain’s clout within Washington was seen having subsided sharply under the Obama administration, particularly with the pivot to Asia. The parliamentary failure to vote for military action in Syria in 2013 was also seen a sign that the UK was no longer keen to play the same role in world affairs. “There’s a real sense, when you speak to people in Washington, that the Brits are drifting away”, Foster noted.

On balance, all of the participants believed that the most likely result of a referendum would be Britain remaining within the European Union. “I think that they’ll probably vote not to leave”, Rehman said, “because the risk is huge in terms of investments and business.” Still, the UK’s relevance to Washington on broader European issues was seen reduced by the prospect.

The rise of smaller parties, particularly UKIP, was part of a trend to the extremes also visible in the US, they said. GW’s Scheherazade Rehman described it as “the British Tea Party”, Dan Roberts described it as “the Ted Cruz of British politics.”

A click here for a full transcript. You can also watch the event here

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