Putting the picture together

By Lucian Hudson, August 28, 2014
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Leadership in a crisis requires not just skill in responding appropriately in the moment but a coherence and consistency of purpose over time. Whitehall and Westminster's response has lacked strategy, limiting UK's influence short and long term, and unleashing an anti-Israel sentiment at home that can be increasingly used to foster antisemitism.

On the Israel-Gaza conflict, the coalition government was split, the cross-party consensus broke down, and most of the media, including the BBC, run away with a superficial view of the conflict, when government and MPs could have used their expertise and experience to ensure a much deeper understanding of the issues.

As a former pioneer of 24-hour television and the internet, one conclusion I draw is that television news and social media might give a snapshot of news and views in a crisis, but are singularly poor at explaining context and interrogating different perspectives. Last year, No 10's plans on Syria partly backfired because of a misjudged tendency to conduct foreign policy by Twitter. Engagement with social media is not a substitute for effective policy communications.

Each of the main political party leaders held a vital part of the jigsaw on this current conflict, but none the full picture. The prime minister kept his nerve, and remained a steadfast defender of the right of a liberal democratic state to defend its citizens under terrorist attack. With more effort going into developing a cross-party political consensus, in foreign policy terms we could now have a Cameron doctrine.

Each leader held part of the jigsaw, but not all

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband rightly tapped into public distress at the human suffering and loss of life on both sides. The issue of arm sales to Israel was a distraction, revealing the dangers of coalition government when responding to a crisis in foreign and defence policy. At a time of crisis, policy should not be made on the hoof. The National Security Council should have stamped on this. Whatever the coalition government's failings in this area, Labour needs to develop a comprehensive and far-reaching foreign and defence policy. If confidence in a party's ability to manage the economy is one electoral test, confidence in protecting its citizens and supporting allies in a similar predicament is another. This is a message politicians from all parties should heed.

If British MPs have concerns about Israel's military doctrine and tactics, they would be in a stronger position to influence Israel if they supported Israel conditionally. Israel will be left confused by the UK's response across the political spectrum. Failure of the international community to respond more fully to the conflict will create even more of a vacuum in the Middle East. The media's failure generally to hold Hamas to account for its actions while disproportionately focusing on Israel means the public is no nearer to understanding what a longer term solution might look like.

In my decade in Whitehall, working directly to cabinet ministers and permanent secretaries during the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and several crises at the FCO, UK strategy was under constant challenge.

But as a government communications director, I knew that despite shortcomings in our strategy, at least one was in place. As chairman of the government's media emergency forum, I could share background context with senior media representatives to inform public understanding of risk. The role of specialist foreign correspondent has never been more important.

One former Labour minister who served Blair and Brown told me, "Political leaders shouldn't use the conflict as a domestic dividing line, either with other parties or previous leaders." Being statesman-like must be the aim. A Jewish community leader with Labour sympathies said: "If Ed wins next May, he will be the first Labour Jewish prime minister with a chasm to close with his own Jewish community."

Labour MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates who are supportive of Israel risk being marginalised by their party at TUC and Labour Party conference, unless Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander themselves try to close the gap that their stance on the conflict has opened up. They cannot reverse their opposition to Israel on this issue, but they can nuance it.

Wherever British Jews are on the political spectrum, they should expect their political leaders to strive for consensus, and focus on what is in the interests of containing and resolving conflict.

Lucian J. Hudson was communications chief in five Whitehall departments, including director of communications at the Foreign Office

    Last updated: 11:30am, August 28 2014