Spirit of the Nation.

A lot is wrong with the United Kingdom at the moment. But David Cameron was absolutely correct in his assertion that relearning how to believe in ourselves as a nation is fundamental to putting it right.

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Stephen Fry as General Melchett
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George Grant
On 8 October 2011 12:13

“That’s the spirit!” he exclaims. “If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through”. So concludes General Melchett, in a memorable rejoinder to Lieutenant George’s refusal to believe that, having crashed behind German lines, Captain Blackadder is almost certainly dead.

Many, doubtless, will see much the same attitude in their interpretations of David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Wednesday.

When, in the teeth of the fiercest recession in living memory, the Prime Minister builds a speech on the importance of relearning to feel good about ourselves as a nation, it’s easy to be cynical.   

Unfortunately, that is the case with far too much in life. On almost any issue, at almost any time, it is indeed easy to sneer, to ridicule, and to dismiss the efforts of others to make a difference. Much harder by far to make those efforts yourself.

And in recognising the importance of national self-confidence, David Cameron is absolutely right. A nation that does not believe in itself is the architect of its own demise.

Examine your own life and you will recognise the truth of the fact that it is not just achievements that lead to self-belief, but self-belief that leads to achievements. Don’t believe you’re good enough to apply for that job? Certain that to try will merely be to suffer the humiliation of failure? That is not the attitude that leads to success.

Of course, a solid house is not built on sentiment alone; real foundations are also needed, and on this score there is much to criticise the government about. The SDSR, in particular, is even now stripping this country of many of the capabilities we need to exert tangible global influence and to defend our national interests.

Mr Cameron was right to emphasise a point that far too many appear to have forgotten during this crisis, which is that during an economic recession, governments cannot conduct business as usual, and painful decisions need to be made.  

But as Bernard Jenkin MP and I argued in a recent report, The Tipping Point: British National Strategy and the UK’s Future World Role, the dire financial straits in which this country presently finds itself was not the sole contributor to this woeful review.

As significant is the absence of a coherent national strategy, built first and foremost on a clear sense of what we believe about ourselves as a country, and what manner of power we want to be in the world.

In Wednesday’s speech, David Cameron certainly spelt out clearly what manner of country he wants Britain to be in the world.

He cited the importance of overseas aid to saving lives in Nigeria and helping development in Rwanda, insisting that “ours is a country that never walks on by.”

He rightly grounded the UK’s decision to intervene in Libya in the context of the Responsibility to Protect, but also, correctly, emphasised that it is possible to combine this with the pursuit of national interests. 

On Afghanistan, the PM’s new measure of success, to “bring them [our armed forces] home by 2014”, is a dismal reflection of precisely the kind of loss of will that he excoriates in the rest of his speech. 

Ironically, in this too, he is proving himself right, albeit unwittingly. I have long maintained that the conflict in Afghanistan is not a forlorn hope, but that confidence in the possibility of success, amongst NATO, the Afghan government and most of all the Afghan people, is absolutely vital to bringing it about.

Now that both the Cameron and Obama administrations have clearly lost confidence in the possibility of that success, so have many of the Afghan people and many within the Afghan government. Why pin your colours to the mast of a democratic Afghanistan now if you fear that it will only fall apart in the future, with potentially lethal consequences for you and your family?

Much can and must be learned from the UK’s failures in Afghanistan, but just as with the many other problems Britain is currently facing, confidence in the fact that they can be rectified is a fundamental first step in actually making it happen.

In reminding the nation of this fact – and making it the central message of his speech - David Cameron was absolutely right.     

George Grant is the Director for Global Security at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank in London, UK 

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