It’s all in the tone

Foreign policy is rarely a defining issue in UK general elections and the state of the economy at the moment means this one will be no different. Add the fact that both of the ‘big two’ were effectively on the same side of the biggest foreign policy issue of the last decade – Iraq – and it’s hard to imagine the topic having any significant impact at all. Despite this it’s still worth looking at where the parties stand in respect of Britain’s place in the world, not least because the one major party that did take a different view on Iraq – the Liberal Democrats – may be in a very influential position come the morning of 7th May.  

Labour are keen to stress their wider commitment to ‘international social justice’ as well as the British national interest and the focus is very much – as you’d expect from incumbents – on what they’ve achieved over the last 13 years. So, plenty of references to being at the ‘heart’ of various international institutions (including the EU of course); ‘leading the way’ in terms of combating poverty and climate change and of course Labour’s response to the economic collapse in autumn 2008. The framing here is clear – Labour’s foreign policy, built on the values of ‘liberty, fairness and responsibility’, is preferrable to the Conservative’s narrow pragmatism. Iraq doesn’t get a single mention.

For their part the Conservatives happily embrace that pragmatism; no mention here of ‘global justice’ (likewise poverty & climate change) just a strong commitment to the ‘promotion and protection of our national interest’. Aside from the usual references to ‘values’ and reforming the UN, G20 etc. the one tangible commitment in here is around establishing a ‘National Security Council’. The body would:

“integrate at the highest levels of government the work of our foreign, defence, energy, home and international development departments.”

The brief is very reminiscent of the US State department and while it might look sensible in a draft manifesto it wouldn’t be easy navigating the various vested interests in Whitehall to actually make that happen.

Understandably the Liberal Democrats make the most of their long-standing opposition to the Iraq war and their claims to be the only party capable of restoring Britain’s reputation around the world. In explicitly calling out ‘dodgy arms deals with dictators’ and alleged UK involvement in torture the Liberal Democrats are indicating no truck whatsoever with the sort of pragmatism often UK governments often have to come to terms with in power. It’s quite clear though that in terms of framing the Liberal Democrats still think there’s political capital to be earned from talking up the ethical dimension to their foreign policy. On the detail the other key difference with Labour & Conservatives of course is the commitment not to replace Trident.

That’s just a brief overview of what the parties are saying at the moment on foreign affairs. We can expect more detail when the manifestos are published next week and it’s worth keeping an eye out for different approaches to defence spending, EU engagement etc.