Five things you should know about foreign policy this election

Half a century ago, the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain “has lost its empire, but has yet to find a role”. The same is true today.

Bernard Goyder
10 April 2015
Map of the British empire

Are we still stuck in the imperial mindset? Flickr/Boston Public Library. Some rights reserved.

1) Labour really like Trident

Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, is desperate to demonstrate that Labour is as tough on defence as the Tories. The Conservatives allege that Labour is prepared to dump Trident to get a deal with the SNP. Trident is a Scottish based submarine fleet of armed with thermonuclear warheads that float ever-ready to avenge an attack on Britain or its allies. 

Alexander’s stance shows the extent to which memories of the 1983 election defeat still haunt the party leadership. The then Labour leader Michael Foot proposed in a manifesto one backbencher called "The Longest Suicide Note in History" to get rid of all nuclear weapons, and Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory.

Trident is a symbol of the UK's relationship with the US. There are 28 submarines that carry Trident missiles, 24 of which are US Navy vessels. Backtracking on cooperation treaties with America would likely strain bilateral ties between the Pentagon and Whitehall.

Diane Abbot's point about the missile system is pertinent: "How exactly does a submarine system designed for Cold War combat meet the threats of international terrorism? It's surprising that no-one is talking about the tactical arguments against renewing Trident". 

2) The Tories are tight with Saudi Arabia

Despite an amicable deal with Iran over its civilian nuclear capacity, the close links between the British government and Iran's sworn enemy Saudi Arabia show no sign of flagging. As Saudi jets were taking off to bomb Yemen, a Conservative foreign secretary had no qualms at the end of last month taking sides in the conflict. "The Saudis are flying British built aircraft in the campaign over Yemen"... said Philip Hammond in remarks made in Washington on March 27th. "We have a significant infrastructure supporting Saudi Air Force generally and if we are requested to provide them with increased logistical support, spare parts, technical advice resupply we will seek to do so. We will support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat with them.”

Britain's ties with a country that is the fountainhead of Salafi ideology espoused by ISIL are as strong as ever. Like the Labour government under Tony Blair, Cameron's Tories are happy to flog fighter jets to a government that flogs bloggers.

Nonetheless, the foreign office has a view on the conflict in Yemen that goes beyond the Sunni vs Shia paradigm (the Houthi rebels are Shia militants). Asked if the UK's support for the Abd Rabbah Mansour Hadi government put them on the same side as Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, a source at the foreign office said "the enemy of our enemy isn't always our friend".

3) UKIP have a point about foreign aid

The UKIP stance on foreign aid comes from a xenophobic corner of the English political psyche that drips with hatred for those outside its own rainy island. But when it comes to the matter of how the Department for International Development's spends its £12bn budget, the idea that it should be a “protected department” starts to look a little odd, when it means that areas like local government and welfare take massive cuts. Government spending isn't really a zero sum game. But the cash could be better spent elsewhere.  

In 2013, 58% of the DFID budget was spent on bilateral aid, much of which goes directly to governments. The three main recipients of direct aid are Pakistan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. Does giving money straight to these governments help the people in these countries, or does it help line the pockets of corrupt political elites? The answer is both, but it is a shame only UKIP are talking about it.

4) The Green Party's foreign affairs spokesman has hung out with Bashir al-Assad 

Tony Clarke, the Greens’ foreign policy spokesperson, is a former Labour MP. Back in 2000, he joined a parliamentary delegation that visited the newly appointed Syrian president. What did the Green Party's candidate for Northampton make of the Syrian ruler? "At that point he seemed in over his head" says Clarke, who thinks reform minded Assad was "struggling" with the Baath party apparatus that really ran the country. Clarke says the Greens’ current view on Syria is to "support those that resist totalitarianism in all its forms", but he isn't keen on military intervention. He says the Greens have decided armed incursion by foreign powers does more harm than good and wants a philosophy of non-violence, human rights and cooperation to lead policy.

5) No one in UK politics really has a clue about what Britain's place in a 21st century world looks like

Half a century ago, the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain “has lost its empire, but has yet to find a role”. The same is true today. Labour policy on Trident indicates an Ed Miliband leadership is prepared to take hawkish foreign policy positions for reasons of electoral pragmatism and real-politic. The Coalition approach to the Middle East has been to muddle through, Blair-lite style, on Libya and now Iraq with an air campaign. The Lib Dems, despite garnering millions of Labour votes in post 2003 elections for the party's opposition to the Iraq War, have been quiet on foreign policy, muscled out of decision making, with one Lib Dem peer to nine Tory ministers in the FCO and DFID offices.

The SNP and the Greens are clearer about where they see the UK in the modern world: in the EU and less up for evil stuff. UKIP is clear it doesn’t want to be in the modern world at all. British politics is set for an inward looking era, with the existential crisis of the union taking centre stage. But as long as conflicts in former British colonies displace people, from Palestine and Iraq to Sudan and Yemen, civilians escaping violence will be looking to the nation that made much of the mess for refuge.  

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