With the United Kingdom in the grip of another General Election, it is worth looking at what the British political parties are offering for their vision of Britain in the world, if such vision exists, and what the foreign policies are of the two main British political parties – the Conservative Party led by Theresa May and the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.
Firstly, it is important to put Britain's place on the world stage and position in the pecking order of nations in proper context. Large elements of the British Political Establishment, the political parties, the media and population still think Britain is an extremely important country in world affairs when in reality it is a minor player in the great global issues of the 21st century. The Britain of 2017 is a deeply insular, parochial country consumed within its own trivia. What groups such as The Henry Jackson Society; elements of the Tory Party; the British media and sections of the public fail to grasp is that what goes on and happens in Britain is largely irrelevant to the outside world.
The UK may be absorbed with Brexit and that is largely all you here about in the news and political discourse and once Britain's impending departure from the European Union comes into full force the country's weight and voice in international affairs will become even more diminished. Yet the rest of the world, including the EU, is not engulfed with the issue of Brexit (thankfully) and regards it as a typically peculiar, self-generated British nonsense and silly distraction from greater international challenges.
There really is no British foreign policy to speak of or overarching Grand Strategy for Britain's engagement with the rest of the planet beyond doing whatever the United States asks of it; banging on about the EU non-stop or pretending it still has some post-imperial grip on the nations of what it quaintly calls the «Commonwealth». This is a great shame and terribly limiting for the UK in this highly interconnected, interdependent, global age. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, started off her Premiership largely as a «domestic» Prime Minister but by the end of it she was immersed in international relations; a force to be reckoned with on the World Stage and became a foreign policy supremo, her very own Foreign Secretary, assisted greatly by her brilliant Foreign Affairs advisor, the real «Deputy Prime Minister» Foreign Office diplomat/MI6 agent Sir Charles Powell. Mrs. Thatcher also grew increasingly frustrated with her sheepish Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe who she berated in Cabinet for speaking in such a quiet, mumbling voice typical of many British people who speak in almost hushed, conspiratorial voices. As she said of Sir Geoffrey's oratorical delivery: «He spoke so quietly that sometimes I could barely hear what he was saying and had to ask him to speak up. And his delivery was not exactly scintillating».
With regards to the current Tory Prime Minister and pale imitation of Margaret Thatcher – Theresa May – she and her Tory Party are offering up a very two dimensional, simplistic, positively provincial foreign policy (if one can even call it a foreign policy). Her main advisors know nothing of foreign policy, international relations and global affairs having no academic credentials and intellectual training in this field; having never worked in the foreign policy community and largely having spent their working lives almost exclusively in the UK either as a football journalist such as Fiona Hill, her co-Chief of Staff, or as a domestic political apparatchik in the backrooms of the propaganda department at Conservative Central Office on «home» affairs such as Nick Timothy. Hill and Timothy's limited understanding of the world beyond Britain; their lack of professional work experience in the worlds of foreign policy and international relations; their lack of knowledge, erudition and intellectual firepower in understanding global geopolitics, other cultures and foreign policy matters combined with their provincialism, lack of cosmopolitan urbane sophistication shines through in Mrs. May's policies and speeches.
As Phillip Stevens writing in the Financial Times makes clear: «In Whitehall code Mrs. May is more 5 than 6». It was said she was frustrated with discussions in Whitehall regarding selecting bombing targets in Libya or Syria and more concerned with domestic counter-terrorism. To her credit Mrs. May is correct in that Britain should stop pretending that it is a force in world affairs and stop believing it's military can make a difference in some kind of post-imperial neoconservative interventionism akin to Mr. Blair's deeply misguided foreign policy. Britain can't and should cease wasting any time, energy or resources on thinking it can make a difference in places like Libya and Syria. The only countries which have the power, strength and competence to really shape world affairs are the United States, China, Russia and perhaps collectively the European Union if it pulls itself together with a European army and single European foreign and defence policy.
Instead, Britain should largely give up any pretensions to being a global power and instead focus on putting its own domestic house in order and improving the quality of life for its own citizens at home. Her new National Security Advisor Mark Sedwill attempts to straddle both MI5, which is in essence the Home Office, where he was Permanent Secretary and MI6 which is in essence the Foreign Office were he previously served as British Ambassador to Afghanistan. Whether or not Mr. Sedwill will be able to pull off this balancing act remains to be seen given how engrossed in the Home Office/MI5 the Prime Minister and her top advisors are. There really is no need to go into great depth or analysis of what the Conservative Party's foreign policy platform is at the 2017 General Election for it has no real depth or multi-dimensional complexity to it a GCSE student could grasp it in a couple of minutes. It can be summed up in a few sentences: hostile to all things EU related and largely anti-European shaped by a Little England, provincial, Home Office/MI5 outlook on the world which is deeply xenophobic, ignorant and prejudiced Hostile to anyone who does not hail from the «Anglosphere».
Subservient to the United States under President Trump backing him and his administration 100% and willing to do anything the Americans ask of Britain. And that is pretty much it. There is no one in the Conservative Party policy making machinery or even in Whitehall who really do foreign policy or have great expertise on these complex subjects. As the Tory MP and former Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee Rory Stewart pointed there were only two people working on Ukraine within the Foreign Office at the start of 2014. Meanwhile when it comes to the second largest economy in the world and the second Super-Power of the 21st century, the People's Republic of China as one former UK Government official put it: «There’s no one in the government who gets out of bed and thinks China. It’s a very old fashioned, almost Victorian view of the world». Quite. This is largely to the detriment of the British. If they think the world will come to them instead of going out into the world as part of the European Union, they are in for a very rude awakening.
Then we have the Labour Party. Before the advent of Tony Blair the Labour Party had historically been cool towards American global leadership. The Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson kept Britain out of the Vietnam War much to the chagrin of President Johnson. From Clement Attlee right up to Michael Foot it had also traditionally been the most Eurosceptic of the British political parties. From the Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin to the Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour Party foreign policy regarding the burgeoning European Community had been to oppose British membership. Harold Wilson nearly split his party by applying to join in 1967 and had to offer a Referendum on continued British membership in 1975 with freedom of his party to campaign which ever way they liked. The Europhiles were led by the likes of Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams while the anti-EEC brigade was led by Tony Benn and Barbara Castle.
Ironically, it was the Labour Party of Michael Foot at the 1983 General Election which pledged to end British membership of the European Community while it was Mrs. Thatcher's Conservatives which fiercely campaigned to protect Britain's place in the European Community. Also during the 1980s the Labour Party under Michael Foot and for a period under Neil Kinnock supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and were in lock step with the CND. All this changed under Tony Blair. Mr. Blair ditched the anti-Americanism; the policy of unilateral disarmament; the hostility towards European integration and embraced a pro-American; militaristic, interventionist foreign policy which climaxed with the disastrous decision to follow the Bush administration into invading Iraq and toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. Mr. Blair, unlike previous Labour Prime Ministers, also became fixated – some would say obsessed – with Middle Eastern issues and was staunchly, unflinchingly pro-Israel. If one were into conspiracy theories one would hazard a guess that perhaps Mr. Blair was a plant within the Labour Party courtesy of the CIA and Mossad!?!
Under the present leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, no Blairite and a traditional socialist, there has been a certain convergence ironically between himself and Mrs. May in that both are rightly sceptical of British military adventurism abroad. But there such convergence ends. While Mr. Corbyn may be moderately Eurosceptic he is not an ultra-Brexiteer and has intimated he may stop Brexit if elected. Mr. Corbyn has rightly opposed British military involvement in airstrikes in Syria knowing full well that it is simply window dressing and superficial symbolism for Britain to pretend it can make any kind of difference through military power in that part of the world.
Mr. Corbyn himself is also rightly sceptical of the continuing maintenance of a horrendously expensive British nuclear deterrent when the money could be better spent on pressing domestic priorities such as health, education, infrastructure, p[pensions et al. There really is no need for Britain to possess nuclear weapons. It is simply a vanity project to maintain the veneer of pretensions to great power status. Germany has no nuclear weapons and feels perfectly fine sheltering under the NATO/American nuclear umbrella. Indeed, we as an international community should be reducing the amount of countries in the world that possess nuclear weapons not maintaining an over-inflated nuclear weapons state status quo. There is an argument that, while nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented, their possession should be limited to a handful of truly Great Powers such as the United States, Russia, China and one European country say France. One day human kind will hopefully evolve to a higher, more enlightened level of consciousness and think to themselves why on earth did our ancestors waste so much money on building and maintaining weapons that had the potential to wipe out every single life on earth a thousand times over.
The Labour Party foreign policy, like the Conservatives, is not terribly well thought out; sophisticated and deep. Under a Corbyn Premiership Britain would probably become more independent of the United States, most certainly since it is now under the leadership of Donald Trump, and Mr. Corbyn could be relied upon to stand up to Donald Trump unlike Mrs. May who is quite content to be his lap dog. Brexit might be stopped in its tracks but the Labour leadership have been vague and inconsistent on this; one minute stating they will go through with it but deliver a softer Brexit; the next minute intimating that the whole process could be stopped. One matter which is clear – under a Jeremy Corbyn Labour Government foreign policy – there would be no repeat of the Blairite neoconservative military adventurism abroad and a more realist approach to Britain's place in world affairs befitting of the true power status of the country in international relations. Mr. Corbyn's foreign policy would probably focus instead on utilizing Britain's soft power for international development purposes in Africa and he would seek to repair relations with Russia.
His policy with regards to China remains opague given his support for Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama, though here again I think Mr. Corbyn as a realist recognising that Britain with it's dwindling resources, dwindling wealth, and dwindling influence in Europe and the wider world will need good relations with the second largest (perhaps soon to be first largest economy on the planet) and that post-Brexit Britain most certainly needs China a great deal more than China needs Britain. I think Mr. Corbyn would be willing to work with the Chinese realising that a strong Sino-British strategic relationship can yield great benefits for Britain based on the principles of mutual trust and mutual respect leading to win-win cooperation. This is something Mrs. May and her Home Office/MI5 crew simply do not understand. But all in all, both major parties whether they the Conservatives or the Labour Party or the very minor fringe party the Liberal Democrats offer very little in the way of an intellectually rigorous, deep, profound, creative and imaginative British foreign policy and Grand Strategy, which is to the detriment of the country at large and the opportunities it could harness for improving the quality of life in Britain.