Boris Johnson’s Norway Debate

And unlike in 1940 when Britain had an empire to call on for support, the result of the Prime Minister’s actions of abandoning Europe and chasing after a US trade deal that never was, has left Britain alone and isolated in a manner not seen since the Napoleonic wars.

The speech by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Tom Tugendhat MP, a former soldier who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, was praised across political parties.

You can read his further thoughts here.

The shockwaves are still being felt on the collapse of the NATO-backed Afghan Government.

While the Home Office continues to disgrace itself.

“What was the Norway Debate?”

There are very few occasions in history when a debate in the House of Commons can make or break a Prime Minister. The Norway Debate was one such occasion. It relates to the debate in the House of Commons on the generally-forgotten catastrophe of the Norwegian campaign early in WWII. Prior to the Norway campaign, some in the media referred to the early stages of the UK’s intervention in WW2 as a Phoney War – or in Germany, Sitzkrieg. For a nation that had been told to expect *and* prepare for air raids and gas attacks, you can understand some of the sentiment.

Above – the Cambridge Daily News in the Cambridgeshire Collection: Before the signing of the Munich Agreement the people of Cambridge – as elsewhere prepared for war.

Let’s also recall that Winston Churchill was an outcast, a pariah figure in politics for the whole of the 1930s until he received a call on the entry of the UK into the war.

…as dramatised in The Coming Storm. Whether it happened as dramatised is up for debate.

It wasn’t a phoney war if you were in the merchant navy, already fighting off the U-boat threat, though it may have seemed like it to the British Expeditionary Force somewhere in France.

Above – musician, actor, singer George Formby (of When I’m Cleaning Windows fame) entertaining the soldiers in the winter of 1939/40.

The Norwegian Campaign effectively started in early April, and by 07 May the House of Commons began a 2 day long adjournment debate on the conduct of the War. On 10 May 1940 Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister of the Conservative-led Government. Less than six months later, Chamberlain was dead.

Not predicting a similar fate for Johnson, but reflecting that in both debates in the Commons, the collective mood of the house was grim, and an acknowledgement by MPs that Britain was and is in far greater trouble than they had realised.

And therefore the authority that the British Government had previously had – along with a major plank of its foreign policy, lay in tatters.

The scale of the catastrophe – 1940

In early April 1940, Norway and Denmark were nominally neutral countries with no hostile forces operating from their bases and ports. France remained unscathed. Eight weeks later the whole of the Scandinavia western coast was occupied by the Nazis, and the British Expeditionary Force had gotten out of France via Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk minus all of its weapons, all of its equipment, 4,000 soldiers forming the rearguard, and the 51st Highland Division unable to join up with the BEF, 10,000 of whom fell prisoner. Thus the fall of France, and a hostile west coast of Europe from the Pyrenees to the Arctic became a reality. And halfway through that period, the Prime Minister resigned.

You can read the transcripts of the Norway Debate online:

This was followed by a debate the following week moved by the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill (transcript here) – who had taken an absolute kicking from MPs in the Norway Debate due to his responsibility as First Lord of the Admiralty (effectively Minister for the Royal Navy – historically until the 1960s one of the most important ministerial posts in government).

“As Arthur Marder, a pro-Churchill historian, put it, “there can be no dispute about Churchill’s strong influence on the inept overall strategy of the [Norwegian] campaign, including the changes of plan as well as upon the combined operations.””

Ironically, the failure of the Norwegian Campaign was what brought down the Prime Minister, but not Mr Churchill. The Leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee refused to join a national government led by Chamberlain. (Think of Johnson today coming under pressure to have a national government in response to COVID-19 as some argued for. It would be the equivalent of Sir Keir Starmer saying yes to a national government, but not one led by Boris Johnson).

Within a week, Mr Churchill was in No.10.

“I beg to move, That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion

Winston Churchill, House of Commons 13 May 1940

With the Recall of Parliament 18 August 2021

You can watch the proceedings again below.

Boris Johnson’s Government banked the bank and then some on a future trade deal with the United States of America, and with the rest of the world, over membership of the European Union. He and his clique also banked on the re-election of the previous president. Which didn’t happen. With the European Union being taken by surprise at the manner of the exit from Afghanistan, and the speed of the collapse of the NATO-backed Government, Johnson now finds himself facing a USA pivoting towards Asia, and away from Europe, and the EU asking questions as to whether it should develop an international military capability independent of the USA.

“We’re not facing air raids and a risk of invasion”

No, but we are facing a climate catastrophe – a threat that requires the governments of the world to unite and act. And at the moment the international community has never looked more divided, weak, and made up of heads of government containing some of the lowest calibre politicians since the run up to the First World War. Or the Second for that matter. How many of Neville Chamberlain’s Cabinet outside of Churchill can you recall? Exactly.

At least with Clement Attlee’s you had that tank of a man Ernest Bevin, previously the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, Economist Dr Hugh Dalton who nationalised the Bank of England, and wartime Home Secretary Herbert Morrison who had a mini air raid shelter named after him. They may have been scoundrels ***but at least you’d heard of them***.

The fracturing of the united front of the high offices of state

The issue of who does and does not get visas is one that lies at the heart of the controversy. The problem is that if the news reports in the mainstream media are to be believed, the Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and Home Secretary have significant differences on who is eligible. At one end you have military officers pressuring their Secretary of State to grant visas to anyone whose life is at risk as a result of working with/for the British State in Afghanistan. At the other end, you have the Home Secretary pushing a tabloid-led agenda of the past two decades arguing for as few as they can get away with politically. In normal times such Cabinet splits would be smoothed over by the Prime Minister who would ultimately make a tough judgement call. But the present incumbent has proven repeatedly during Covid19 that he cannot make those tough decisions at the right time. He just wants to be liked. And now he does not know what to do because whichever way he chooses will upset someone in his clique.

The moral and political authority draining away from Boris Johnson’s Government – and the growing irrelevance of the United Kingdom in international politics

This is what the recall of Parliament revealed.

Whether it is the European Union that no longer needs to listen to the United Kingdom’s squabbling and unco-operative Conservatives now that the disruptives are outside the union, or the United States of America taking unilateral decisions without warning that have huge consequences for allies and other countries.

And what has been making the public understandably angry is that they are seeing the horrific scenes live-streamed onto their phones, and there is nothing their Government can do about it – even though that same institution (The British Government – albeit under a different Prime Minister of a different political party in a different generation) committed significant UK forces and resources to get rid of the institution that has come back and taken over Afghanistan – again though the individuals are different.

The public also know that the UK can’t do what it did in previous eras of history. For example, British officers can’t go around hanging local people like they did in 1879, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Nor can they go around putting villages to the torch in acts of revenge – ones that today would be considered war crimes.

Have a look through the free to access reports in the British Newspaper Archives from the 1800s. The newspapers of the time are full of reports from the colonies with revolts and rebellions being brutally suppressed – the ones not found in mainstream history books praising the Empire.

It puts the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan over the past two decades into a very different light when you read report-after-report-after-report of atrocity-after-atrocity from Britain’s colonial past. The collective, shared people’s histories having experienced this will not have been forgotten so easily. I think of how the People’s Museum in Manchester commemorates the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, or how East London commemorates the Battle of Cable Street when the fascists were stopped by the Jewish Community alongside anti-fascists. Or Glasgow and the Battle of George Square.

Is Boris’s Global Britain nothing more than a slogan for election purposes in the same way his almost lifelong friend and rival David Cameron came up with Big Society for similar purposes?

All that seems left is the tired old rhetoric of less regulation is better regulation. And people are now routinely and more confidently calling it out. The electorate called their bluff, gave them a thumpingly large majority, and they blew it.

In the meantime, the very abrupt end to the NATO mission in Afghanistan led to this call from the Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood (Cons – Bournemouth East)

This was a call echoed by the now Head of the Institute for Government, Bronwen Maddox back in 2013. With the Conservative chairs of the Foreign & Defence Select Committees* now openly hostile to Johnson’s administration in their specialist policy areas, the political authority of the Prime Minister now stands in question.

*Note that the Chairs of House of Commons Select Committees are elected by backbench MPs from all parties by secret ballot, with the parties deciding in advance which political party will chair the committee (And also selecting a corresponding opposite party as vice-chair). This means in order to win a select committee election, the winning MP *must* hold the confidence of MPs from both sides of the House – in particular demonstrating independence from the Government, *and* being willing to ask the difficult questions both in Parliament and in high profile news and current affairs programmes – even if it means criticising your own political party.

The Labour Party have finally called for the Foreign Secretary to resign.

“How can Boris Johnson allow the Foreign Secretary to continue in his role after yet another catastrophic failure of judgement?”

Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy MP

Given Johnson’s failure to sack the Home Secretary for breaches of the Ministerial Code, Raab doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. For now. But what’s the point on having both a Foreign Secretary and a Home Secretary who carry such little political credibility in those hugely important posts?

Maybe the fact that the two of them continue to occupy two of the four highest offices of state (the Prime Minister/First Lord of the Treasury, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer being the other two), shows just how irrelevant the UK has become politically that a Prime Minister can appoint such low calibre people to high public office. And we’ve not even looked at Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary or Robert Jenrick as Housing Secretary.

There’s a maximum three years and four months left of this present administration. Will Johnson hold out for another general election and resign afterwards? Or will he choose to go in the next few months, declaring Covid, Brexit, and Afghanistan to be over? In which case will his successor call a general election, or try to hold out for as long as possible?

Food for thought?

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