Few elections since Victorian times can be said to have been determined by foreign affairs. Nevertheless the absence of any significant debate on Britain’s place in the world during last year’s General Election was revealing. In the decade since troops were controversially sent into battle in Iraq, the UK still has not decided the extent to which it wishes, or believes itself obliged, to engage in global issues. Last year’s campaign did little to enlighten us on British voters’ views.
The Syrian crisis exemplifies the current national uncertainty. Imploring the Prime Minister to ‘do more’ to stem the human catastrophe that has unfolded in the Middle East, the British public nonetheless shows little appetite to engage more deeply militarily or diplomatically to stem the violence at its root. Such reluctance might be regarded by some as admirable sophistication, an instinctive understanding perhaps within the electorate that the complexity of the modern world limits our ability to influence events positively or conclusively. Nevertheless I also detect in this the naive hope that the world might leave us alone if only we disengaged from it.
Doubtful and hesitant, I believe the electorate is now receptive to a positive vision of how modern day Britain operates on the international stage. We Conservatives finally have a real opportunity over the course of this parliament to show leadership in this sphere in a way that was always going to be challenging under coalition.
Jeremy Corbyn’s notorious January reshuffle, which followed hot on the heels of agonised internal party wrangling before, during and after the vote on Syrian air strikes, gives more than a hint of the direction in which the Labour leader wishes to take Britain and his own followers over the next four years. High-brow pacifism, naive moralising, a childlike faith in international diplomacy unaccompanied by the threat of force, and a shunning of our longstanding nuclear deterrent: Mr Corbyn’s world is one in which threats disappear once we take the time to grasp that our enemies are victims of past colonial misdeeds who need only to be better understood. As the Labour leadership seeks to coalesce its party around this unusual, if authentic, collection of views, Conservatives must be ready to counter them with our own robust and confident narrative on Britain’s place in the world.
Our first task is to move firmly on from the last parliament by countering the criticisms of the coalition’s foreign policy. As we approached last May’s General Election, the commentariat relentlessly lamented what they perceived to be Britain’s diminished global role, citing an absence (in contrast to France and Germany) from the negotiating table over Ukraine; a lack of post-conflict planning in Libya; the failure to command support for Syrian intervention; and the reduction in our Armed Forces personnel while overseas aid was increased. To some extent the hesitancy of coalition policy linked into a wider crisis of confidence afflicting the West. After the euphoric end to the Cold War, the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s made way for a miserable series of intractable conflicts in the Middle East from the 2000s that have ensured Western electorates are weary and sceptical of any overseas military adventures. Just watch the US grapple with its own isolationist instincts as the current presidential election battle winds on. We live in a brave new, potentially multipolar, world in which all actors are grappling for their role and where the policy prescriptions of nations like Turkey, Russia and China are as relevant to solving regional tensions as the West’s.
What we in Europe already know for sure, however, is that the modern world’s interconnectedness removes isolationism as an option. No matter how much or little we wish to engage, the security, economic and humanitarian challenges thrown up by global instability will visit our shores – often literally. In this fresh parliament we already have a strong story to tell as the Prime Minister exerts more authority in addressing these challenges. Since the election, we have committed ourselves to spending 2% of GDP on defence for each of the years to 2020 (a key NATO pledge ducked in the General Election campaign), the development budget has been maintained and more money is being dedicated to the work of our security services and international policing. October’s Chinese State visit firmly restated Conservatives’ commitment to Britain as a global trading nation. We were finally able to pass a decisive parliamentary vote for cooperative action with UN partners in Syria, and the Prime Minister weathered initial criticism on the migrant crisis to adopt a pragmatic, primarily regional approach to assisting refugees. Meanwhile, he is promoting a reform agenda in the European Union which could lead to two-tier membership, finally acknowledging the fundamentally differing future needs of Eurozone and non-Eurozone member states.
In taking these lines, I suspect the Prime Minister is broadly in tune with the instincts of the public. British people appreciate the complexity and interconnected nature of modern foreign affairs. They wish the UK to continue to play a prominent and engaged role in international diplomacy, maintaining our membership of NATO, our place on the UN Security Council and prominent role in the community of nations. They complement our historical Commonwealth links with a huge array of new connections of their own built from business and travel experiences as well as increasingly diverse family ties. They are proud of Britain’s global cultural influence. But they remain as suspicious and sceptical as ever of grand projects and short-lived successes, acknowledging the limits of our ability as a mid-tier nation to mould outcomes.
Meanwhile the world wishes us to be fully engaged more than we perhaps realise. I currently serve as Chairman of the Conservative Party’s International Office, a role which brings me into daily contact with a variety of sister parties abroad, ambassadors and international NGOs. The message delivered without fail is that these allies would like to see more of the UK, not less. They value Britain’s contribution to international debate, welcoming our military expertise and leadership on free trade, the promotion of rule of law and democracy, and reform of international institutions. They appreciate the bridge that the UK provides between the US and EU, particularly as America retreats and Europe’s struggles with crisis. Countries such as Ghana and Nigeria note the robustness of French military forces and intelligence against extremists in Mali and Chad and seek similar support from the UK in tackling Boko Haram. Many other nations request help in copying Britain’s institutions and legal system.
With our historical relationships, military and aid resource, and cultural and economic clout, the UK is uniquely placed to articulate a more patient, reform-minded and flexible approach to international affairs. This will involve utilising the resource of our Armed Forces, Foreign Office and DfID in a much more coordinated way but also the skills and expertise of our many and varied professionals – lawyers, financiers, tech experts and educators.
This approach is already being developed in Syria, where military activity is just one strand of our work. The absence of jobs and decent education for Syrian refugees is one of the key drivers pushing people towards Europe. Last week, the Prime Minister launched a plan to use market forces to boost the economy in Jordan, where to date around 1.3 million Syrians have been displaced. By removing trade tariffs for exports to the EU, and creating special economic zones with donor-funded wage subsidies and tax advantages, it is hoped international investment and new jobs for refugees will follow. British expertise can also be put to use undermining ISIS’s financial clout, drawing on lessons from Northern Ireland where the systematic and patient unravelling of the IRA’s financial infrastructure helped force terrorists to the negotiating table. Far from ideological obsessives, many of the young men fighting for ISIS are making a painful economic calculation based on the high wages they receive from their terror paymasters. One of the reasons ISIS have suffered strategic losses in recent weeks is that they have been forced to slash fighters’ wages, thus increasing defections and desertions. British financial and security expertise has played a key role in this; by cooperating with others we can help further deprive the terror force of its economic lifeblood.
There has been increasing scepticism over the effectiveness of aid, particularly in countries where governance is insufficiently robust to deter corruption. It is also abundantly clear that foreign policy objectives do not always fall neatly into the categorisation of MoD, DfID or FCO work. To reflect this, the remit of the UK’s overseas aid contribution is rightly being expanded so that it fits into our broader security and foreign policy objectives, and focuses on good governance and private sector development. That includes developing the IFUSE programme that matches British experts from organisations as diverse as the Institute of Chartered Accountants, Met Office, CPS and Bank of England to partner governments in need of support. It involves using DfID money to assist BIS-funded scientists who are developing vaccines for Ebola and other diseases. In this digital age, opportunities abound to use technology to help entrepreneurs circumvent inexpert, inflexible or corrupt governments to spur economic development. DfID’s Energy Africa work, for instance, is helping people in countries such as Nigeria and Senegal overcome regulatory and financial barriers to install pay-as-you-go rooftop solar systems.
Closer to home, I am optimistic that the Prime Minister’s renegotiation of our relationship with the EU may prove only the opening salvo in a thorough, ongoing process of European reform. In this way our nation will be at the forefront of advancing a free trade and competitiveness agenda that promotes growth, jobs, security and stability beyond the referendum. If this proves successful, it will be the latest in a long line of British achievements at European level, from which we benefit as members of the largest international single market in history. It would also bolster the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, the group we established upon leaving the EPP whose energetic Brussels team tirelessly promotes centre-right ideas on competition, energy, trade and markets, and now boasts representation from eighteen different EU member states.
We shall always need to have our international work backed up by conventional military force, strong alliances, a nimble security service and a nuclear deterrent. To neglect those crucial components of our international engagement is to risk being coerced into submission when diplomatic efforts fail. But the ongoing, diplomatic efforts to find innovative, flexible solutions to today’s intractable global conflicts can help assuage understandable doubts among the British public that force alone can deliver lasting positive outcomes in the twenty-first century.
2016 is the year of opportunity for the Conservative Party in setting out a bold and sure-footed vision of modern Britain’s contribution to global affairs. It is likely that by year end, the British people will have had their chance to pronounce on the issue of our European Union membership. Conservatives must then regroup and govern. The unanticipated ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn reminds us that there remains a strand of domestic apologist thought that still needs to be decisively defeated if global dangers are to be confronted. It is the duty now of our Conservative Party to remind the public that Britain needs to be engaged and active in positively shaping an increasingly uncertain world.