Foreign Policy – The Issue Nobody’s Talking About In The U.K. General Election

With the announcement of the various parties’ manifestos in the last week, it is Labour’s commitment to a new foreign policy approach which is arguably the most radical departure from the status quo of recent decades. The commitment to bring an end to what is termed the “bomb first, talk later” orthodoxy could enable the government of the United Kingdom to deliver a consistently positive impact on global conflict affairs for the first time in the 21st Century.  

The party’s manifesto promises to implement every recommendation of the Chilcott inquiry and to introduce a ‘War Powers Act” as a means of making sure that “no Prime Minister can bypass Parliament to commit to conventional military action.” Perhaps more significantly, the document makes explicit reference to the disasters of recent U.K. foreign policy, pointing out that “[f]ailed military interventions in countries like Libya have worsened security across North Africa, accelerating the refugee crisis”. In addition to a recognition of recent policy errors, there is a commitment to reviewing Britain’s colonial legacy, which includes the promise of a formal apology for, and public inquiry into, the country’s role in the Amritsar Massacre, during which British Indian troops killed 400 unarmed civilians in Jallianwala Bagh. 

Regardless of the potentially positive impact of the policies listed above, such promises seem unlikely to significantly impact the outcome of the election. With the prevalence of concern for the manner in which Britain deals with issues surrounding the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, as well as the importance of the NHS in public minds, the prospective governments’ various approaches to a global conflict do not rank highly in popular opinion. In the most recent Ipsos Mori poll, only 4% of British people saw Defence/Foreign Policy as the most important issue facing the country today. Given the consequent lack of scrutiny being given to such issues during this election campaign, it is perhaps disappointing that the Labour party has stopped short of promising to end covert actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and that it is committed to renewing the moribund Trident nuclear program.  

In any case, should the Brexit fiasco finally wrap up in one way or another, the new government’s approach to foreign affairs may pique the interest of the public again – particularly if the prospect of another military intervention once more rears its head. In this regard, the likelihood of a Corbyn government – in all probability in coalition with the SNP – committing British troops to such a venture is extremely small. Furthermore, the prospect of a British government adopting a more critical approach towards Saudi Arabia (whom the Conservatives failed to criticize over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi), may exert a little pressure towards finding a peaceful solution in Yemen and de-escalating regional tensions with Iran. In these matters, the Liberal Democrats’ policies of aiming to revive the Iran Nuclear Deal and halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia are commendable. However, Jo Swinson has no chance of winning a majority and has already ruled out a coalition with Corbyn’s party. While Labour promises not to outsource foreign policy to Donald Trump, Swinson’s record and the recent history of her party have shown that the Liberal Democrats are happy to outsource their entire manifesto to the Conservatives for a seat in government.  

Ultimately, Britain’s approach to foreign policy will be intricately bound up with the resolution to Brexit. It is difficult to see a Conservative-led government affecting any positive change to its approach to the Middle East where it may hinder the prospect of receiving investment from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in the wake of Brexit. Even if this government is in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Swinson’s previous stint in government has already demonstrated her unwavering loyalty to the Tory whip. Labour’s approach, were it to win, would be different. Yet, while the fallout from the 2016 referendum on EU membership continues to dominate British political discourse, wider foreign policy concerns will continue to occupy a backseat in political discussions.