All talk, no thought, no action
Written By: Denis MacShane
Published: February 9, 2015 Last modified: February 4, 2015
One of the major unreported develop¬ments of the past five years is how little political interest there has been in for¬eign and defence policy. Parliament is now largely a foreign policy-free zone. Defence of the realm and national security are big political subjects but the Tories have had a free ride despite a sequence of blunders un¬equal¬led by any post-war administration.
General Jonathan Shaw com¬mand¬ed Britain’s special forces and was in charge of the unhappy British occu¬pation of Basra in Iraq. He argues in his new book Britain in a Perilous World (Haus Books), that the failure to think about policy “results in a serious lack of vision about the UK’s place in the world and what it ought to do about it. This makes our foreign policy es¬sentially to play the cards as they fall.”
General Shaw is scathing about how “Whitehall lives in a perpetual present” and describes David Cameron as “a PM seemingly more interested in the instant gratification of action rather than the tedious discipline of deep, coherent thought”.
This is remarkable language from a senior army officer and one who is the son of a former Conservative MP – so not to be sus¬pected of left-liberal deviationism.
The briefest glance at foreign and security policy under Cameron and his successive foreign and defence ministers would throw up the following examples of failure:
• More than 450 men have died pointlessly in Afghanistan on Cameron’s watch because he had no strategy to wind up an unwinnable conflict and no courage – in contrast to leaders of Canada and Nato allies in Europe – to stop having young men used as Taliban target practice.
• We live under the shadow of the disaster of the Libya intervention in 2011 when Cameron sought to walk tall with the equally un-strategic Nicolas Sarkozy. As Shaw rightly points out, Gaddafi may have been ghastly but no more ghastly than other Arab regimes who torture and sponsor terrorism. As a result of Cameron’s ill-considered action Libya is now Jihad Central – both an armoury and training ground for Islamist violence. Moreover it is the funnel through which African mi¬g-rants pour by their thousands into Italy, Malta or other Mediterranean states before heading north to England.
• The contemptuous treatment of our European partners and allies. The Cameron-Hague obsession with out-Ukipping UKIP with attacks on the EU as well as unsavoury alliances with nationalists in the European Parlia¬ment, including anti-Jewish politicians from Poland and Latvia, has damaged Britain’s status in Europe.
• The decision to scrap aircraft carriers has left Britain without serious naval projection capability for the first time in 300 years.
• William Hague’s mercantalist policy imposed on the Foreign Office to turn it into an export promotion machine, has seen Britis balance of trade deficit increase to record levels. Every country Hague visited as Foreign Secretary saw a rise in trade deficits.
• The scrapping of the FCO’s human rights report first published by Labour’s Robin Cook has lost Britain a voice as a leader in this field. Cameron has still never pronounced a word on the fate of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate, while Nick Clegg admitted he had not heard of the flogging of the Saudi journalist Raif Badawi. This absence of concern about human rights by Britain’s national leaders is shaming.
l Cameron rushed to Paris to march for freedom of expression and against Wahabi Islamist terrorism. A fortnight later he fawned at the feet of Wahabi floggers of journalists in Saudi Arabia.
Unlike the blunt General Shaw, Britain’s diplomats are too polite to rock the boat but they are deeply unhappy at the marginalisation of diplomacy and the absence of any clear vision of what Britain’s role in the world should be.
The foreign and defence policy think-tanks pullulate with seminars and conferences and publish properly footnoted reports but there is no commanding voice or vision to be found in the press or in longer essays and books on what Britain foreign policy should or could be. Single issue groups like the development or environment lobby plead their case but are not willing to work out how to integrate their ambition with different delivery mechanisms.
In 1980, Britain spent 8 per cent of gross domestic product on defence and security and 7 per cent on health. Now we spend 12 per cent of GDP on health and 2 per cent on security without much evidence that we are a healthier or more secure nation.
We now have more prisoners than soldiers as judges send more and more people to prison while our generals must make do with ever fewer recruits. But why do we have 200 generals when the US, with an army five times bigger, needs only 300. Why does the taxpayer subsidise these red-tabs?
This is the moment when an oppo¬sition party with ambitions to govern should be exposing recent failures of foreign and security policy, but the days when MPs of any party thought beyond the immediate headline horizon on these issues are long gone.
British foreign and security policy is about talking, not thinking, still less doing.
Denis MacShane was PPS and Minister in the FCO 1997-2005, then UK dele¬gate on the Council of Europe for five years. His book, Brexit: Why Britain Will Leave Europe, is published by IB Tauris