We are witnessing a diplomatic failure as great as the failure to predict the collapse of Soviet communism. Revolts in the Arab world are coming in a manner and from a quarter the experts never expected. With luck, we are also seeing the end of one of the most discreditable episodes in British diplomacy since Chamberlain and Halifax appeased the European fascists in the 1930s.
Like America and France, Britain has sought to charm the Arab dictators and not only in Cairo and Riyadh. WikiLeaks tells us that in the interests of "realism" and "stability", the Foreign Office also embraced the unhinged Muammar Gaddafi and briefed the old despot's courtiers on how they could secure the release of the Lockerbie bomber, before the courts had acquitted him of responsibility for the worst murder in recent British history.
What set the Foreign Office apart from other cynical western chancelleries was that it was not content with appeasing today's secular dictators. It went on to embrace the theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood it expected to become the religious dictators of the future. At no time did it seek to promote the interests of those in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere who do not wish to live under dictatorship in any of its forms.
Appeasement is a slippery tactic. Diplomats convince themselves they are "engaging" with repulsive movements because the national interest demands it. But the longer they engage the more willing they become to take the side of their partners and find excuses for their life-denying ideologies. A series of leaks to the Observer from a brave Foreign Office civil servant called Derek Pasquill showed that Britain never spent a moment worrying about what Muslim Brotherhood rule would mean for the Christian and Bahá'í religious minorities, or for Egypt's democrats, liberals, trade unionists, women and homosexuals.
Typical of Whitehall's casuistry was a briefing by Mockbul Ali, a graduate of the religious right, the Foreign Office hired as an adviser. He told ministers that Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the Brotherhood's favourite theologians, was a mainstream figure Britain should do business with. He neglected to mention the cleric's endorsement of wife-beating and female genital mutilation and of the murder of gays, Jews and Muslim "apostates".
The careers of Foreign Office diplomats provide a measure of how compromised Whitehall became. Frances Guy, the head of the Engaging with the Islamic World Group, which led the drive to support radical Islam, give it aid money and involve the Brotherhood in British foreign policy, is now our ambassador to Lebanon, from where she writes sinister blog posts announcing her admiration for the leaders of Hezbollah . Derek Pasquill lost his job, his home and his marriage for blowing the whistle. Such was the price of defending liberal values in "liberal" Britain.
There is an old and by no means disreputable leftwing argument that the British establishment retains a colonialist mentality. It wants to be friends with the Islamist right in case its adherents gain control of oil fields, and does not believe that Arabs or Muslims deserve democracy because Johnny Arab cannot handle basic freedoms. You can find echoes of the old prejudice in the BBC's attempts to portray the Muslim Brothers as moderates, as if they were the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Anglican Communion, or in the willingness of the Home Office and Metropolitan Police as well as the Foreign Office to treat the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-i-Islami as the sole legitimate voices of Muslim Britain. (If you cannot see what is wrong with that manoeuvre, imagine how you would feel if officialdom treated the BNP as the legitimate voice of white Britain and the BBC praised Nick Griffin's moderation.)
As anyone with eyes to see must know by now, those who say they are the British establishment's sworn enemies are no better than the ruling elite. To the take the most egregious case, "progressive" Londoners still appear willing to vote for Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections next year, even though he backed Qaradawi and went on to take the money of the Iranian regime's propaganda station Press TV, after the mullahs' secret policemen had killed and raped pro-democracy demonstrators in Tehran.
London is one of the world's centres of Arab journalism and political activism. The failure of left and right, the establishment and its opposition, to mount principled arguments against clerical reaction has had global ramifications. Ideas minted in Britain – the notion that it is bigoted to oppose bigotry; "Islamophobic" to oppose clerics whose first desire is to oppress Muslims – swirl out through the press and the net to lands where they can do real harm.
David Cameron seems to be prepared to stand up for elementary principles. He was almost pitch-perfect in his speech in Germany as he rejected with the required scorn the right's argument that a clash of civilisations made Muslims and democracy incompatible and the double-standard of the multi-culturalists, who hold that one can oppose fascistic doctrines when they are held by white-skinned demagogues but not when they are propagated by brown-skinned reactionaries.
I am not sure the prime minister understands that he is taking on a sensibility as much as a political platform. Because Britain was never invaded by the Nazis, and never suffered from any of the other versions of 20th-century tyranny, there is an unforgivable frivolity about our dealings with totalitarianism. Dilettante bureaucrats, journalists and intellectuals play with extremists and their ideas with the insouciance of men and women who know that they will never have to suffer the consequences of coping with extremists in power. The best gift the British can give the world in this moment of crisis is to imitate the crowds in North Africa and say enough of all of that. It is time to break away from a shameful past.