Britain’s voters are united on defence – now the election should provide a bold vision for it
Jeremy Corbyn’s special subject is supposed to be foreign policy. It was his staunch opposition to the Iraq War that gave him cult status among many of his supporters and made him a darling of the “Stop the War Coalition”. The Labour leader is not shy in offering an opinion on issues of national security and defence, from drones to nuclear deterrence, even if they deviate from his own party’s agreed line, or its traditions. How striking then that he scores lower in the public’s estimation on his special subject than on any other issue. According the latest polling figures from IPSOS-Mori, Theresa May’s ratings for trust on defence are at 57% to Corbyn’s 18%. Only on the economy (55% to 18%) is the Prime Minister’s lead anywhere near so emphatic.
Corbyn may feel that he can get away with maintaining his purity on foreign affairs if he can make ground on education and health. After all, national security barely featured as a headline issue at the 2015 general election, and was only touched on in passing during the leadership debates. Only in times of war does it swing general elections. In 1983, many saw Margaret Thatcher’s victory, which came after a difficult first term, as a consequence of victory in the Falklands War. The Conservative landslide victory of 1900 in the so-called “khaki election”, which gave Lord Salisbury a 130-seat majority, was explained by a surge in patriotic fervour during the Second Boer War. But such examples are few and far between. Tony Blair won a third general election in 2005, albeit with a slightly dented majority, despite it being held at the height of the Iraq War.
For the most part, perceived economic competency and leadership capabilities remain the aces in the pack. Yet security is the first duty of any government. It follows that the perceived ability to run a successful foreign and defence policy is regarded by most voters as an issue of core competency that feeds into so much else. These are matters of low yield but high risk for any putative party of government, on which estimation of leadership capabilities hangs. A party, or a leader, that is seen as incoherent or unreliable on national security will be punished by the electorate.
In 2017, with much of the world in turmoil, defence and national security are likely to loom larger than they have than for many years.
For one, following Brexit, Britain’s relations with other EU member states are back in the domain of foreign policy in a way they have not been for decades. The “balance of power” in Europe – one of the most timeworn foundation stones of British grand strategy – is back in play again.
Looking beyond Europe too, there are growing concerns about the state of the world and the UK’s place within it. A large proportion of the electorate understands that the UK is vulnerable to some of the consequences of global destabilisation – from conventional military threats from hostile states (such as Russia) to terrorism and the consequences of economic instability, migrant flows and environmental change. Anyone who aspires to lead the country must provide answers to these concerns and a cogent vision as to how such challenges can be navigated.
The way that foreign policy is discussed in the UK – centred around episodic debates in parliament on issues such as Iraq, to Syria and Libya – has created a misconception that the British people are deeply divided about how the UK should conduct itself beyond its shores. In fact, polling shows that support for military intervention overseas tends to oscillate significantly depending on how the issue is presented. While the prospect of “another Iraq” causes many to recoil, there is often a sense of moral urgency and a high degree of support for tackling threats, such as that posed by Islamic State, head on.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, in fact, it is possible to identify a resilient and broad consensus on the fundamentals. For the most part, a majority of British people hold to something like this view: the UK should be strong on defence (in maintaining its independent nuclear deterrent, for example) but selective and cautious in how it employs military force abroad; the UK should put the national interest first but should be a force for good in the world; and the UK should concern itself with international issues of humanity and human rights.
Of course, this does not provide a formula that cannot be followed in every instance, as interests and values are not always possible to reconcile. But it does suggest that the British people will be a receptive to a broadly conceived approach that takes the national interest as its starting point, but still seeks to make Britain’s voice heard in trying to solve the great humanitarian issues of our time.
A large majority of voters now support the view that there is no point in re-running the EU referendum campaign and that the first job of the next government is to make Brexit a success. Moreover, Brexit cannot be separated from other changes in the international system that threaten to undercut some of the foundations of British foreign and defence policy – including questions over the future of NATO, the UN, or global free trade.
During general election campaigns, there is a tendency to put issues of defence and foreign policy on hold. With the Brexit clock ticking, and so many international challenges on the horizon, the UK cannot afford another hiatus.
New visions for the UK’s place in the world – such as that suggested by the notion of “Global Britain” – will be tested during the course of the election campaign. Rather than postponing these issues, there is an opportunity to put some meat on the bones. Committing to an increase in defence spending over the course of the next parliament is a good place to start (to reach nearer 2.5 than 2% of GDP). Ultimately, being “global” is not simply about being “open”, but also being strategic, self-confident, and bold.
The UK remains, in the words of former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hague, speaking at Policy Exchange earlier this year, “one of the few countries which can move the dial in world affairs”. One reason for this is that it has been able to amplify its influence through its place on the UN Security Council, prominent role in NATO, and – with varying degrees of success – as a “bridge” between the United States and Europe.
Much has been written in recent years about the decline of the post-1945 Western-led world order. Britain has a vested interest in ensuring that this order is shored up and that it does not collapse. Rather than become a “curator” of the old order, however, the job of the next government is to ensure that the UK is “present at the creation” of the new.