16 June 2016

Simon Burns: the Tory MP campaigning for Hillary Clinton


Walking into the office of Sir Simon Burns MP, it soon becomes very apparent who he is supporting in the United States’ presidential election. The walls are lined with posters of Democratic figureheads and slogans from past and present. Pictures taken with Bill and Hillary Clinton proudly surround his desk, and he even wears a watch with Hillary’s face on it.

Knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list last year, Burns has enjoyed a distinguished career in the Conservative Party. In nearly 30 years as MP for Chelmsford, he has served in several positions, including as Minister of Health. However busy things have been in the UK, though, Burns has long-harboured a deep passion for American politics and the Democratic Party.

It all began during his gap year in 1972, when he worked on George McGovern’s presidential campaign. McGovern lost to Richard Nixon by a stunning 23-point margin, but that failed to dissuade the future MP. Burns campaigned on Ted Kennedy’s successful senatorial campaign in 2006, Hillary Clinton’s first campaign in 2008, and Joe Kennedy’s election to Congress in 2012. Most recently, he spent his parliamentary recess over Christmas and New Year in New Hampshire, canvassing primary votes to secure Hillary’s nomination.

Asking which candidate he has been most impressed with over the years, the answer came very quickly, and with complete certainty: Bill Clinton. Burns described the former president as “the master, in terms of the way he could empathise with the crowd”, who was hugely significant in bringing the party “back to being electable” by occupying the centre ground. He expects Bill to play a major role in November, “but without overshadowing his wife”.

Burns sees Hillary Clinton’s campaign as building upon the coalition which her husband built, including elderly Democrats and ethnic minorities. As he pointed out, this was extremely noticeable in the southern primaries this year, in which Hillary won a staggering 86% of the black vote in South Carolina, and nearly 90% in Mississippi. Burns feels that “many African Americans regarded Clinton as the first black president, because of the way he looked after them, the way he appointed a cabinet that reflected the composition of the United States”, and what he did to “break down further barriers of racial prejudice”. “They regard the Clintons as looking out for them,” Burns continued, “as Obama has done in his presidency”.

On her VP candidate pick, Burns felt the key was picking the right person to win back working-class white males from Donald Trump: “they used to be an important part of the Democrat coalition”, and Clinton “had them in 2008”. He fully expects Sanders to return to the fray – not “cry over spilt milk” – and his supporters to follow him. Therefore, Burns does not see the need for a left-wing VP candidate to lure them in, and “obviously it can’t be Sanders”. Perhaps Julian Castro, he suggests, the young, attractive and hispanic former Mayor of San Antonio, Texas.

We then moved onto Hillary’s biggest challenges: her establishment label, and her perceived insincerity. Burns quickly flipped the ‘establishment’ label into a positive, with “the fact that she’s been on the scene for almost thirty years”, including being “elected twice in her own right as a Senator in New York”, meaning “she is amply qualified to do the job: whereas Donald Trump certainly isn’t”. When I asked about her sincerity, especially in comparison to a straight-talking Bernie Sanders, Burns was defensive yet adamant that she was sincere, only “she is more buttoned up than Bill Clinton is”. Behind the scenes, he described her as “relaxed” and “great fun”, with a “great sense of humour”.

Of course, the question of sincerity often focusses on Hillary’s email scandal. Julian Assange has recently announced that WikiLeaks will be releasing more leaked emails, likely to do further damage to her reputation. In Burns’ eyes, the whole scandal is just an example of “right-wing organisations who have always followed both Clintons to try and undermine them”. He finds the episode hugely frustrating, pointing that “none of the emails were hacked into”, and “they were not classified as secret documents” until after the fact.

A large part of criticism has focussed on Hillary’s somewhat inconsistent responses during the controversy. Burns was forced to concede that “she should have said it was a mistake at the beginning”, but again pointed to groups aiming to “create a myth that there is something dreadful behind these emails”. Like the 50-million-dollar Whitewater land deal investigations, “Republicans like to try and create an impression that there is some kind of conspiracy involving the Clintons, probably because they are so good at getting votes”.

Fast-forward to January. If Hillary Clinton does secure the presidency, what might it look like? Burns expects “she will be more decisive” than Obama has been, describing the outgoing president as “a more cautious politician”. Most importantly, she may be able to work better across the aisle: “it’s been quite clear since 2009 that Republicans in Congress were determined that they were not going to work in any way with Obama”, embittered by the fact that “the American people wanted him to be president rather than John McCain”.

Hillary Clinton fostered good relationships with key Republicans when she was a Senator, like John McCain himself, who would later describe her as “a very effective Secretary of State”. Burns touched on this cross-party effectiveness, saying “she was able to put forward legislation with leading Republicans”. If Hillary comes to power, Congress may be able to “get back to a semblance of consensus in putting forward legislation that is in the best interest of the United States”.

A cross-party deal will be essential if anything is to be done about gun control, something which Hillary is committed to confronting. After the horrific events in Orlando, calls for restrictions on gun ownership are gaining renewed energy. Burns pointed out that Bill Clinton’s 1994 assault rifle ban would have prevented Omar Mateen legally acquiring his weapon, if it were not allowed to expire by the Bush administration. He also attacked Texas’ new law enabling weapons to be carried on campus: “if you’re British, it just seems weird that people would want that right, and that the authorities would want to allow it”.

Amongst all of these unanswered questions, though, there was one thing which Burns felt was free from doubt. Thanks to her time as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is not a stranger to the Foreign Office or to the Government. Assuming she wins in November, Burns said assuredly, “I have no doubt that we will continue to have a very good and strong relationship with the United States”.

The full transcript of the interview with Simon Burns can be found here.

Jack Graham is a political commentator who specialises in American politics