David Cameron comes to Ottawa

The British PM channels Churchill in his first bilateral visit to Canada

The invitation had been “dangling” for months but, British sources say, plans for British Prime Minister David Cameron’s first bilateral visit to Canada — and the first by a British prime minister since Tony Blair in 2001 — only got under way two weeks ago.

It was then something of a scramble to prepare statements and speeches. Quoting Churchill is always a reliable crowd pleaser on these occasions, and both sides were soon eyeing the great wartime leader’s “Some chicken! Some neck!” speech delivered in the House of Commons in December 1941.

I’ve always preferred the part of the Churchill’s address that day in which he vows: “Hitler and his Nazi gang have sown the wind. Let them reap the whirlwind.” The defiance in such a promise was all the more profound as it came when Germany appeared unbeatable — although both Canada and the United Kingdom would have been buoyed by America’s entry into the war weeks earlier.

Nevertheless, it was the chicken that speechwriters for both Cameron and Harper wanted. The Canadians staked their claim first, leaving Cameron to draw on a speech Churchill made at the Chateau Laurier hotel in 1954. “We have surmounted all the perils and endured all the agonies of the past,” he said then. “We shall provide against and thus prevail over the dangers and problems of the future…withhold no sacrifice, grudge no toil, seek no sordid gain, fear no foe.”

But Cameron didn’t just come to Ottawa because Churchill made some of his best speeches here. And it’s little mystery why Stephen Harper was so keen to have him. The two form something of a mutual admiration society, sharing faith in open markets and free trade, and a willingness to use military force to advance foreign policy goals in places like Afghanistan and Libya.

Cameron’s speech opened with a tribute to the recently deceased NDP leader Jack Layton, and took on a partisan sheen after that. He praised Canada’s handling of the global recession, noting — as has Stephen Harper repeatedly — that no Canadian banks fell or faltered. He praised educational results in Alberta. He praised Canada’s roll in “helping the Libyan people to liberate themselves.”

Time and again, the government side of the House rose in delight to applaud Cameron for applauding them, while the NDP caucus appeared increasingly dejected, prevented by rules of hospitality and decorum from doing anything to register disagreement other than looking glum. By the time Cameron got around to congratulating Canada on renaming its air force and navy the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy, the only movement from the Opposition side of the House was Peter Stoffer, his hand thumping the desk softly like the tail of an old Labrador retriever who’s happy to see you but too tired to get up from his rug by the fire.

Cameron’s speech then moved to global economics. “The world is recovering from a once in 70 years financial crisis and is suffering from debts not seen in decades,” he said. “This is not a traditional, cyclical recession. It’s a debt crisis.”

Cameron argued that it is not enough to use “conventional fiscal and monetary levers to stimulate growth until confidence and normal economic activity returns.”

Cameron instead proposed three measures:

“Get to grips with the debt and restore credibility and confidence.

“Make it easier to do business and create jobs by freeing up our economies.

“And, in a global crisis, working together across the world coordinating our action – including boosting world trade, starting with the Doha Round.”

He also urged Canada to demonstrate to the world the value of trade liberalization by concluding early next year an economic and trade deal with Europe. (More cheers from the Government side of the House; more crickets chirping amongst the Opposition.)

Cameron’s was a speech that played to his hosts while also confronting the financial crisis back in Europe. Britain and Canada are to some extent sheltered from it — Britain’s decision not to adopt the euro is looking better every day — but a disaster in the Euro zone will send waves across both the Channel and the Atlantic.

At a press conference later that evening, Cameron said he and Harper would be discussing Syria over dinner, particularly their desire to get a “no-nonsense” resolution on Syria passed at the United Nations. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has killed more than 2,000 people in Syria during a months-long uprising.

The two men released a joint statement, identifying global economic instability and the need to support aspirant democrats in the Middle East and North Africa as their primary challenges.

They also pledged to “work toward a reinvigorated Commonwealth, primarily focusing on its core competency of promoting democracy, good governance, human rights, including freedom of religion, and the rule of law.” It was a theme Cameron returned to when concluding his address to the House: “We are two nations, united by one Queen, and one set of values.”

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