Across the Pond

An Interview with Sir Christopher Meyer

OR: What is the meaning of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn? Is this the end of Labour as a significant force?

Meyer: A lot of observers will now say that the traditional Labour Party is over. Jeremy Corbyn represents what used to be a very small but troublesome minority trend inside the Labour Party — one that has now broken out and taken power. This is effectively the hard Left. It’s the hard Left that was marginalized in the Labour Party for many years and is now back on center stage. It’s not a stable situation. It can’t be a stable situation: although Corbyn appeals to a certain kind of Labour supporter, many of them are very young. They can’t remember the disaster of the Labour Party 25 or 30 years ago when it moved pretty hard to the left. These supporters are very enthusiastic and have swelled the ranks of the Labour Party enormously. But they do not represent the majority view of the British electorate. One doesn’t know how long the Corbynistas or the Corbynites are going to stay in the leadership.

What I’ve just described is a very specific British phenomenon, something that’s going on inside one of our parties. But there’s a wider phenomenon here, one that affects many other European countries and some would say democracy in the U.S. as well. Because there is clearly in Britain a fatigue with politics as usual and with the same old politicians, with their heavy dependence on focus groups and polling and positioning and all the other things that characterize modern politics.

There is a yearning in the U.K. for fresh faces with fresh voices and this has led to highly marginal parties moving towards the center of politics. On the right, we have had the U.K. Independence Party, UKIP, which garnered millions of votes in our general election in May. Because of the peculiarities of our parliamentary system, they only got one parliamentary seat. But it is still a case of renegades, insurgents, and mavericks suddenly becoming a significant force. On the left you’ve got Corbyn and his supporters inside the Labour Party.

You can argue, depending on your point of view, that the Scottish National Party is not just a Scottish nationalist party but is actually an insurgent party that happens to find itself in Scotland. You look across Europe and you see something similar happening in France with Marine Le Pen and the Front National. You see it in Italy with the Five Star Movement. In Germany you’ve got Die Alternative. We would say in Europe that the Trump phenomenon and the Ben Carson phenomenon and the Bernie Sanders phenomenon are similar. They represent a disillusion with politics as usual and a yearning for something fresh — especially as enunciated by people who are virtually popular demagogues.

OR: Do you see a real chance of any of these insurgents coming into power anywhere in Europe?

Meyer: One of the characteristics of this new phenomenon of political insurgency is unpredictability. There are two major European countries where there is an anxiety about what’s going to happen. One is Italy, where these insurgent parties have done extremely well. The really big worry is France and the strength of Marine Le Pen and the Front National, the party that her father created. She is now one of the main political forces in France. When they have the French presidential elections in 2017, there is a very real possibility — a minority possibility but still a strong possibility — that she could become the next president. People are very anxious about that.

OR: Do you see the current administration as running to the right ahead of those elections?

Meyer: It’s been a characteristic of French Socialist governments that in the end they are forced to move right because their left-wing program just doesn’t work. François Mitterrand started with a strongly leftist policy which he was unable to sustain. In the end he had to cohabit with a party that was not a Socialist party. We’ve seen something similar with Hollande, who started with a strongly Socialist agenda that has effectively by now run out of steam. Manuel Valls and his cabinet are now moving right. It’s not by European standards a massively right-wing move, but it does reflect a greater confidence in the market and a greater willingness to liberalize the French economy and some of its rules about how you do business.

Looking at the world scene, the French are doing stuff in places like West Africa and in the Eastern Mediterranean with Syria which is at least as robust as anything that we in the U.K. are doing and in some ways more robust. If I were sitting in the National Security Council in Washington now I would say, “Hey, the French are proving pretty good allies.” I find a number of Americans on this side of the Atlantic making comparisons between France and Britain at the moment that are not particularly favorable towards the U.K.

OR: What do you view as the future of the special relationship? Do you think Britain is going to continue to retreat from a leadership role on the world stage in military terms?

Meyer: Although I believe the U.S. is our single most important partner and ally both economically and in national-security terms, I never believed in the notion of a special relationship. I think it is a rhetorical device, essentially, which is often used by the U.S. to put pressure on the U.K. to do things that the U.S. wants and the U.K. may not want to do. I can remember having a meeting with Colin Powell very shortly after I became ambassador to the U.S. and our new Secretary of State at the time, the late Robin Cook, was coming to visit Washington for the first time.