The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Think before you talk

It has not been a particularly good week for the British Prime Minister and his Deputy, as each have made rather unfortunate public remarks.

Speaking in the US, David Cameron referred to Britain as the junior partner in the fight against Nazi Germany in 1940. Meanwhile, during a formal session of Parliament, Nick Clegg (standing in for the absent Cameron) referred to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as illegal.

Apparently David Cameron forgot that the United States did not enter World War II until December 1941 as, when discussing the 'special relationship' between Britain and America he said that "We were the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis."

The remark has naturally been seized upon by opposition politicians but has also drawn criticism from veterans' organisations, which won't help Cameron's stated aim of a new covenant between the British military and the people.

This has been a difficult trip for Cameron who has already had to deal with a storm of controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, by the Scottish government in August last year.

In the case of Clegg, the remark was significant because, while it may well have been accurate, he is no longer a politician in opposition but a Cabinet Minister.

While one could argue that Clegg was merely expressing his own and his party's long-held view, when standing at the government dispatch box in a formal meeting of Parliament he represents the government and not the Liberal Democrat party. Claiming to be speaking in a personal capacity is not an option and it is in that context that the remark was unfortunate.

The Guardian quotes Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London: "A public statement by a government minister in parliament as to the legal situation would be a statement that an international court would be interested in, in forming a view as to whether or not the war was lawful."

Cameron's remark, on the other hand, was simply wrong and also quite bizarre considering the pervasiveness in Britain of the 'we stood alone' historical narrative regarding the summer of 1940. For a head of government to betray such a tenuous grasp of history is rather worrying.


  1. He also wrote this article for the Wall Street Journal just before:

    I completely agree that it was a bizarre comment to make and utterly wrong. It will cause a lot of offence to British war veterans and, if you read that article, his own grandfather.

  2. in reality, nothing has come of it because it was just a mishap. OK, he's the PM and he shouldn't make mistakes, but he's human like the rest of us. let's not make mountains out of mole hills!