By Philip S. Powell, May 6 2015
As the United Kingdom approaches one of the most unpredictable general elections in recent history, two important words are seldom heard in the clamour of election hysteria: foreign policy. Of course elections are primarily about what politicians can deliver on the domestic front, i.e. NHS, crime and welfare. That is what the voting public care most about. So does foreign policy matter during a general election?
Well, there has been some discussion about the pros and cons of defence budget cuts and the renewal of Trident – the UK’s nuclear submarines. But there has been hardly any meaningful foreign policy discussion from any of the larger parties. Compare this with the 1880 General Election and the Midlothian campaign – a series of foreign policy speeches given by William Gladstone of the Liberal Party attacking the supposedly immoral foreign policy of the Disraeli government. Gladstone had a vision of an ideal world order that was just and inclusive. The content of the speeches focused on his commitment to a world governed by law and the protection for the weak. It is believed that the Midlothian campaign created the momentum that carried the Liberal party to election victory.
So what has changed? Recently retired British NATO chief, General Sir Richard Shirreff, speaking about the Ukraine crisis, complained that PM David Cameron has become a “foreign-policy irrelevance”. Is the UK shrinking away from its role as a leader on the world stage?
On the EU, each of the main parties has included a clear stance on the issue in their manifesto. The Conservatives have pledged to hold an "in/out" referendum on Britain’s renegotiated EU membership by 2017. The Labour Party has pledged to legislate for a “lock” that guarantees no transfer of powers from Britain to the EU without an in/out referendum. And the Lib Dems have pledged hold an in/out referendum if there is a plan for "material transfer of sovereignty" from the UK. All three parties in principle hold to the view that sovereignty lies with Parliament, not Brussels, and is the legitimate authority for governing the country. I agree wholeheartedly with this but also believe that it is better for the UK to remain a full member of the European Union and play a positive role in shaping Europe’s future instead of leaving the Union.
What about other foreign policy issues beyond the EU? After the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there is real suspicion of military-led humanitarian intervention and the general mood in the country is that Britain should stay out of other people’s business. However, the UK remains a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto powers and is a founding member of NATO, and therefore has to bear a certain weight of responsibility for global affairs. Let me briefly outline three foreign policy issues to consider during this election.
First, the Ukraine Crisis in Europe’s back yard. President Putin and the Russian government have shown flagrant disregard for Ukraine’s sovereignty and should be held to account. Western sanctions are to some extent working but the only way this can be sustained is if Europe remains united in its efforts to keep Russia in check. The UK cannot afford to fall back on its commitments to NATO-led security for Europe. The next leader in 10 Downing Street should have the courage of conviction to use whatever means necessary to deal with the Ukraine crisis.
Secondly, the Middle East remains a conundrum of many challenges, from the Israel-Palestine conflict to the possible nuclear deal with Iran. The next government will be party to any deal with Iran, which could lead to further conflict between the Sunnis and Shias in the region. There is also the ongoing battle against ISIS in the region. Because of the UK’s longstanding history in the region, Britain has a key diplomatic role to play in leading the way in bringing long-term sustainable solutions to both security and development challenges.
Lastly, there is the ongoing challenge of global climate change. The UK has been a leader in tackling climate change and ought to play a key role at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year. One of the goals of the conference is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to limit the global temperature increases to not more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. All of the three foreign policy issues mentioned have domestic implications and therefore cannot be ignored.
At a time when the world faces many pressing challenges, the UK cannot afford to be apathetic or careless about global affairs. Britain’s role on the world stages matters, and our party leaders need to be reminded of what former foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd said twenty years ago, that Britain should aim to “punch above its weight in the world”.