Their campaign slogan is “Vote for Change.” But in terms of foreign policy, if David Cameron’s Conservative Party maintain their opinion poll lead over Labour and go on to take office after the British general election on 6 May, change is likely to be conspicuous mostly by its absence. As The Economist pointed out last week, with the notable exception of Britain’s relations with the EU, “foreign policy is distinguished by the broad agreement it commands in Westminster […]. For the time being, politics, to a degree that some find heartening and others worryingly complacent, still stops at the water’s edge.”
Take Afghanistan, a war that bleeds popular support with every British fatality (281 now since 2001) but one that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats – the UK’s third largest party (and possible kingmakers if voting ends in a stalemated ‘hung’ parliament) – offer to end Britain’s military involvement with any time soon. Indeed, and quite apart from any security fallout, a hasty withdrawal would deal a serious blow to the UK’s longstanding ‘special relationship’ with the US, which the Conservatives are (uncontroversially) committed to upholding.
Admittedly, this is not an election that will be decided on matters of foreign policy. British voters have other priorities: the economy (now out of recession, but still in a fragile state) chief among them. Gordon Brown argues that he is the best man to continue to manage the country’s economic fightback – David Cameron’s team cannot be trusted to do so properly, he says. For their part, the Conservatives attack Brown’s fiscal record – he handled Britain’s finances as Chancellor of the Exchequer for 10 years under Tony Blair – and say they will right public finances quicker than Labour.
Rightly enough, the Conservatives publicly recognize the link between economic power and global clout. “Economic success makes a big difference to foreign policy influence,” said Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, last July, “and sometimes quite quickly so.” Gordon Brown’s “catastrophic stewardship” of the UK economy had resulted in a “diminishing of our economic power and by extension the effectiveness of our international role,” he argued.
To be sure, with its history of imperial adventurism and global influence (not to mention permanent seat on the UN Security Council), few in Britain – in England certainly – would be comfortable with a perennially reduced presence on the world stage. “The citizens of Britain have always been restless in trying to improve the wider world and global in our outlook,” Mr Hague said further. “We have always been at the forefront of international charity, development aid, and the welcoming of refugees[…]. It is not in our character to have a foreign policy without a conscience: to be idle or uninterested while others starve or murder each other in their millions is not for us.”
If they do win, which is by no means a foregone conclusion (as it was beginning to look some months ago), the Conservatives most awkward foreign relationship is set to be with the EU. Hostility toward the Union is a deeply entrenched part of the outlook of a large majority of Conservative politicians and party members. David Cameron’s decision last year to abandon plans to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – when it became clear that this second incarnation of the rejected EU Constitution would be in effect long before Mr Brown would need to call an election – prompted howls of protests from die-hard Euroskeptics among the ranks of the Conservative Party faithful. Meanwhile, his withdrawal from the center-right coalition in the European Parliament in favor of a more marginal right-wing “collection of outcasts” (in the words of Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband) alarmed many leaders on the continent, in Germany especially.
On Europe, David Cameron must therefore walk a difficult line: between anti-EU sentiment on the one side, and pragmatism – which, on balance, he seems to prefer – on the other. A Conservative government will undoubtedly treat Europe with a greater degree of caution, but given the pressing nature of Britain’s domestic problems, picking fights with the EU is a distraction that Mr Cameron, if he gets to Downing Street, can hardly afford.