UK General Election 2019: Britain's New Foreign Policy Divide

A breakdown of foreign policy consensus means voters have a meaningful choice between two different visions of Britain’s place in the world.

Expert comment Updated 13 December 2019 Published 9 December 2019 2 minute READ

Thomas Raines

Former Director, Europe Programme

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn at the state opening of Parliament in October. Photo: Getty Images.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn at the state opening of Parliament in October. Photo: Getty Images.

Genuine ideological differences have returned to British politics. That is as true in foreign policy as in questions of domestic politics. The post-Cold War foreign policy consensus in UK politics around liberal multilateralism is fraying.

This tradition had some key characteristics. It saw Britain as one of the cornerstones of an international order built on a liberal (or neo-liberal if you prefer) approach to economic globalization. EU membership was considered central to Britain’s influence and prosperity (even if further political integration never had deep support). Security policy was grounded in a stable package of NATO membership, close ties to the US, nuclear deterrence and a willingness to conduct military intervention.

Both main parties accepted that foreign policy had a commercial dimension. Both were willing to sell arms abroad to regimes with dubious domestic records.

Despite differences of emphasis, and some moments of genuine disagreement, foreign policy did not undergo big shifts as different parties traded periods in office. That may be set to change.

Party divides

On the one hand, Labour wants to reset and re-orientate Britain’s international role based on human rights and international law. It promises a new internationalism and to end what it glibly calls the ‘bomb first, talk later’ approach, alongside a human rights-driven trade policy. More concretely, it promises to legislate to ensure Parliament takes decisions on military action, boost resources for the underfunded Foreign Office and suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.

In Jeremy Corbyn, they have a leader with roots in a distinct left-wing ideological tradition of internationalism that blends a commitment to international solidarity alongside anti-imperial and anti-war sentiment. He has spent his career as a sharp critic of Israeli and US policy, while championing various international political causes, some more radical or fringe than others. His historic positions on issues like NATO and nuclear deterrence, while not represented in the party manifesto, demonstrate a personal radicalism that no recent Labour PM has embodied.

His willingness to challenge the failures of the hitherto centre ground of foreign policy – particularly on military interventions from Iraq to Libya – is an under-appreciated aspect of his appeal among many supporters, even while it is one of the sharpest lines of attack from his critics. Boris Johnson’s chauvinistic rhetoric could not stand in sharper contrast to Labour’s commitment to conduct an audit of the effect of Britain’s colonial legacy on violence and insecurity.

The Conservative manifesto asserts their pride in Britain’s historical role in the world, followed by a broad set of largely rhetorical commitments to bolster alliances and expand influence. An ambitious free trade agenda points to a more economic and commercially driven foreign policy, the inevitable trade-offs and constraints of which are only beginning to be addressed and debated.

There is an underlying sense that Britain will be liberated from the constraints of EU membership, although beyond trade there is little that would not have been possible, or in most cases easier, from within the EU. As my colleague Richard Whitman has observed, the empty bromide ‘Global Britain’ has been dropped altogether, though beyond the idea of a new UK space command and a stronger sanctions regime, there is little that is new or specific.

Not all the consensus centre-ground position has been abandoned. Both major parties remain committed to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence and 0.7 per cent of gross national income on development in their 2019 manifestos.

But beyond their manifesto commitments, prime ministers can exercise extensive powers in foreign affairs through the royal prerogative. Their government can choose to recognize other states, as Labour intends to do with Palestine. They can sign international treaties. And at present, in the absence of the sort of war powers act proposed by Labour, they can conduct military action without recourse to Parliament, which has no legally established role in this area.

Even a weak minority government would have considerable scope to transform the tone of Britain’s diplomacy.

Foreign policy as a partisan political issue

If UK foreign policy becomes more partisan, this will have longer term implications. Voters will theoretically have greater scope to shape and influence foreign policy more directly. Foreign policy may become divisive if it becomes more partisan. It may also become less consistent, which will affect the capacity of the UK to show leadership over the longer term on issues on which there is no domestic consensus. Britain’s allies may need to manage a less reliable partner. The diplomatic and security apparatus of Whitehall will need to be more adaptable.

British elections generally don’t turn on foreign policy questions; 2019 will not buck that trend. At the same time, this election will be very influential in shaping Britain’s position on the world stage and its approach to international issues. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn represent very different ideas about Britain’s role: its foreign policy, its alliances, and indeed its idea of itself. The Brexit context makes these political undercurrents on foreign policy matter all the more.

Foreign policy may not matter that much to most voters, but these elections matter for foreign policy.