Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

One Year On, Can the UK do More with Less?

Lord Malloch-Brown, Chairman of EMEA, FTI Consulting; former Minister of State at the FCO and UN Deputy Secretary General

The survey reveals fascinating splits in British attitudes to foreign policy and its instruments. The obvious split is between opinion-formers and the general public but an equally interesting difference is between Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters.

First, on the opinion-former-general public split, it is not surprising that the opinion-formers have a much more benign view of, for example, British foreign aid (ODA), and of the EU, than public opinion at large. Government communications seem to have taken this into account (perhaps ministers studied last year's Chatham House survey that highlighted the same point), limiting themselves to generally muted announcements around both issues, more intended to avoid provoking the tabloids and their readers, than to convert them.

So these two very significant surveys of UK foreign policy live in the shadows, only seeing the light of day when there is incontrovertibly good news such as UK non-participation in the latest Greek bailout, or British sponsorship of the replenishment of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), or very bad news such as the present East African drought when only the most hard-hearted voter might want to hold back help. But when the issues rub up against a visceral public dislike, such as aid to Pakistan, which is not surveyed but one can guess would not be supported by the British public, or the EU budget, stealth rather than showbiz is sensibly, it seems, the order of the day.

Yet such selective modesty does not augur well for overcoming the differences within the coalition. It seems the splits between the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat partners are as wide on foreign policy as on domestic policy. The Liberal Democrats remain much closer to Labour in their generally progressive multilateralist instincts; fonder than their partners in government are of institutions such as the EU, particularly, but also the UN and other parts of the multilateralist machinery.

It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the Conservatives as holding some naturist backwoodsman view of foreign policy. In the survey, a clear and perfectly sensible Conservative view emerges of a faith in the harder tools of foreign policy, such as NATO and the G20 (both of which Liberal Democrats also support), and defence spending, rather than the softer consensus-building roots that their rivals hold dear.

This could be the bones of a pragmatic and 'realist' foreign policy. And indeed, the government's early espousal of trade, meaning British jobs and exports, as the leading edge of their foreign policy, chimes with a view of the public at large that while the relationship with the US is correctly calibrated, Britain should be doing a lot more to charm, and win over, China, India and other emerging economies. Those surveyed understand that these countries are Britain's future markets. Respondents were sharply split on party lines as to whether we were doing too little or too much with Europe.

As David Cameron and William Hague made a lot of just this approach at the start, with prime ministerial-led trade missions to India and China, and UK ambassadors being re-tooled as UK plc sales representatives, they might have hoped for endorsement from this survey, which asked voters whether they believed British foreign policy over the past year has made the country safer or more at risk. But not so; British international interests were deemed by a majority to have been set back, not advanced, by the first year of this government.

There seem to be two explanations for this. The first is the government's own reversal of its initial break with the Gladstonian foreign policy of its predecessor by leading the Libyan intervention. While the survey question was about liberal interventionism in general, the sharply negative response suggests that Britons still sensibly feel a strong antipathy towards open-ended adventures of the kind begun under Tony Blair, but which have now continued, to everybody's surprise (including, probably, his own) under David Cameron.

Once again, although the blood had rushed to the prime ministerial and public head when there seemed to be widespread risk to innocent civilian lives in Benghazi, when calmer reason returned, the government was seen as having dug itself too deep into the Libyan sands. If it had stuck to the business of China and India, or if it had respected the limited humanitarian nature of the UN Security Council resolution, then the government's foreign policy stock today would be higher.

There is, however, a second, notably sharp, division between the Conservative-led government and its own supporters and how this relates to defence spending. Conservative voters think the UK's security requires more such spending, and of course the government has bravely cut spending via its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to conform to reduced spending across all of Whitehall, apart from the Department for International Development (DFID).

The consequences of cuts have been on embarrassing display as the generals have struggled to mount an adequate British contribution to the NATO Libyan operation. The tally of planes and ships going from service over Libya to the scrapyard is about as humiliating as it gets for a political party part of whose historical mantra is strong defence.

Yet the government, like Republicans in the United States, has to face up to the contradiction between reining in public spending and retaining high levels of defence spending. When GDP is flat or shrinking, the sums no longer work. And of course it is inconsistent with another mantra: lower taxes. Cameron and his team have boldly confronted this, even if it was impolitic to expose the consequences of the cuts as they have been forced to do over Libya. And hence the real challenge of British foreign policy: the need to do more with less. In the survey many still hanker for a role Britain is no longer equipped to play.

We are destined to a multilateral foreign policy - carried out through instruments such as the EU, UN and NATO - because we can no longer afford a bilateral one. This survey shows how we are being nudged by circumstances in that multilateral direction. I am not sure from the numbers that we are yet ready, beyond Labour and Lib Dem opinion-formers, to embrace that future. We will reluctantly find we have no choice - but with a Euro crisis, a weakened UN and a NATO run by desk-bound generals many Britons will, I suspect, walk into that future holding their noses!

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Moore Wilson Digital Agency London