There’s trouble abroad: David Cameron is a foreign policy prisoner

Kirsty McNeill

David Cameron has been prime minister during some of the most dramatic foreign policy developments of the last 20 years. From the Arab Spring to the crisis in Crimea, the coalition has been contending with global shifts every bit as important as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the global financial crash. But one year out from a general election, it is still impossible to discern anything that looks like a coherent Conservative analysis of how Britain might best project our power in an insecure and unequal world. The fault lies with a prime minister imprisoned by his party, his ideology and his approach to government – and the fallout has enormous implications for Ed Miliband’s ability to change the world when he enters Number 10.

It didn’t have to be this way. The early Tory modernisation efforts had plenty to cheer the progressive heart, from Cameron’s embrace of international aid to his disavowal of “the fruit cakes, loonies and closet racists” poisoning Britain’s debate about Europe and immigration. It looked like the Cameroons really had understood the price their Conservative predecessors had paid for their ‘nasty party’ realism. Whether in their dubious relationship with apartheid, their opposition to action in the Balkans, their apathy during the Rwandan genocide or their enthusiastic promotion of British arms sales to Iraq, Tory governments of old had consistently been found on the wrong side of the most important global questions of the day. The foreign policy of the previous Conservative government is perhaps best summarised by Douglas Hurd’s mirror of Thatcher’s domestic mantra: “there is no such thing as the international community”. For a while, Cameron seemed intent on breaking with tradition.

In a sense, it hardly matters now whether Cameron’s progressive internationalist conversion was ever more than skin deep: we know it barely survived the first few months of government. Despite flashes of genuine courage, such as his determination that Britain should help prevent atrocities in Libya, Cameron’s retreat to the Conservative comfort zone has been depressingly predictable.

The first driver of that is both the extremity and the outspokenness of the 2010 Conservative intake. Professor Tim Bale describes a parliamentary party where “today’s mainstream majority, inasmuch as it exists at all, is no longer that mainstream, at least relative to the electorate as a whole … the right – free market, small state, low tax, tight borders, tougher sentences, eco- and euro-sceptical – is where the solid centre of the party now comfortably resides”.

While euroscepticism is a long-standing feature of the Conservative parliamentary party, the shrinking of the Tory payroll vote which has accompanied coalition government has made the new euro rebels even more ill-disciplined than their predecessors. Cameron’s lament in his first conference speech as Tory leader was that the party had lost touch with ordinary people’s concerns by “banging on about Europe”. Fast forward eight years and Cameron’s party is devoting more time to in-out referendum hokey cokey than the cost of living crisis. His isolation even from other centre-right leaders has reduced this country, in the words of The Economist, from “arguably the most powerful in the union” at the turn of the millennium to one which “has not only relinquished its leading role, but barely features at all” in determining how Europe should respond to the economic and security crises unfolding around us.

But while Cameron’s party certainly limits his room for manoeuvre, it is not clear he regrets it all that much. On climate change, for instance, it was easy enough to hug a husky and pledge to be the “greenest government ever” in opposition, but in office Cameron has sided squarely with the vested interests of the energy sector. And while even the super-rich gathered at Davos listed inequality as their biggest concern, Cameron was busy fighting to keep inequality reduction targets out of the global framework which will replace the Millennium Development Goals. In the end, Cameron is a prisoner of his own ideology as well as his party’s.

The final driver of Cameron’s foreign policy failures is his own approach to government. When Ed Miliband decried this “incompetent, out-of-touch, U-turning, make-it-upas- you-go-along, miserable shower of a government” he was speaking about their domestic track record, but the same aversion to detail and delivery afflicts Cameron on foreign affairs as elsewhere. It remains baffling, for example, that the Conservative whipping operation on the Syria vote was so lackadaisical and that he didn’t seem to have spent even 20 minutes gaming out what should happen in the event of his defeat.

His approach to key global moments, meanwhile, has simply been not turning up for work. When appointed by the UN secretary general to co-chair a high level panel on how the world should tackle poverty after 2015, he decided to stand up his fellow co-chairs – Africa’s first female president and the president of the world’s largest Muslim country – to give a speech about welfare instead. Even worse, he sent Justine Greening, a minister so uninterested in her role that Conservative commentator Iain Dale has labelled her “the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Tory party” and The Spectator has been reduced to begging “can’t she even pretend to like her job?”

Our slide towards irrelevance is becoming a national embarrassment. During the recent crisis in Ukraine Ben Brogan has suggested that an absent Cameron means “Britain is increasingly a bystander on the world stage”, while Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow argues “the British seem to have given up doing foreign policy altogether”.

So what should an incoming Labour government do to help repair the damage done by five years of Cameron’s foreign policy imprisonment? Labour’s internationalists face two different sets of dilemmas. The first concerns the painful policy trade-offs of which governing projects are made. Should we prioritise democratisation, stabilisation or liberalisation in the countries of the Arab Spring? How can the role of powerful dictatorships be minimised while our influence is maintained on questions of shared interest? Should our development spending be an instrument of foreign policy and, if not, what other tools are we prepared to use to project British power?

The second set of dilemmas surrounds the politics of progressive internationalism. The recent ‘One Nation in the World’ Fabian pamphlet and the IPPR’s ‘Influencing Tomorrow’ do much to stake out the questions which Labour’s future foreign policy must address. But they also highlight – and do not resolve – three key internal splits in Labour’s foreign policy family. The first is between what can be termed ‘the paranoids and the Pollyannas’ – between those who think terrorism, extremism and Russian and Chinese belligerence combine to make a world in which left and liberal forces must form an aggressive counterweight, and those who believe that life on earth has never been so good and the role of progressives is to demonstrate rather than dictate the benefits of global trade, fair elections and social pluralism. The second is between those who want to start with our ideal scenario and then fight for the money for it and those, like Rachel Briggs, who believe it is time for an Austerity Internationalism, focussed on doing a small number of things really well and, in so doing, re-establishing the foreign policy faith of an Iraq-scarred British public. The third is between those who want to start with ideas (about, for example, humanitarianism) and those who want to start with institutions (and therefore focus instead on questions like UN reform and the rescue of multilateral bodies like the WTO).

Despite their differences, the people clustered on each side of these debates have a shared interest: they want to win the internal Labour battle for an internationalist not isolationist politics and they are coalescing fast into new and powerful networks. Over the next few months Labour’s leadership will face a more coordinated push to lay out our foreign policy principles and Ed Miliband will have to be clearer where he stands on each of these three big internal debates. David Cameron has been a foreign policy prisoner, but Ed Miliband could yet rescue Britain’s lost role as a global progressive powerhouse. First he must declare that there is such a thing as the international community, and he intends a Labour Britain to be right at its heart.

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 edition of the Fabian Review.

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