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26 February 2015

Leader: The long shadow of decline: is Britain bowing out of the world stage?

This is no “conscious uncoupling” – the reason Britain’s voice isn't heard in Europe and beyond is, under Cameron, it has little to say. The challenge for Miliband is to show he can do better.

By New Statesman

The world feels ever more uncertain – and dangerous. Europe faces threats on its periphery, from Russian revanchism to religious wars and the barbarism of Islamic State in the Middle East, and may yet be undone from within by economic crisis in the eurozone.

After the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the British people are, rightly, wary of further foreign entanglements and uncertain about what Britain’s role in the world should be. But it feels as if a mood of war fatigue, coupled with prolonged austerity, is leading to a marked and perhaps permanent decline in British influence.

This week’s cover essay contains a glaring omission. In Elizabeth Pond’s detailed account of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its consequences, the British Prime Minister is wholly absent as a significant actor on the world stage. Under this government, the United Kingdom’s central focus in European affairs is not the threats to its borders, still less the existential dangers of climate change or energy security, but what concessions the country can secure in advance of David Cameron’s planned in/out referendum on our membership of the European Union.

As the stand-off between Greece and its creditors threatens to trigger a Greek exit from the single currency and thus a renewed crisis, the Chancellor, George Osborne, often seems a mere spectator. And when Jeb Bush – the dominant candidate of the moment in the race for the Republican presidential nomination – reels off a list of the United States’ strategic partners, the UK is not even mentioned.

If this were part of a conscious uncoupling of a “special relationship” between Washington and London that at times under New Labour grew too close for comfort, it might be welcome. But the reason why the British voice is often unheard in Europe and elsewhere in the world is that, under Mr Cameron, Britain has precious little distinctive to say, his close personal relationship with Angela Merkel, another austerian of the centre right, notwithstanding.

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Faced with a low bar, Ed Miliband has cleared it, but only just. His shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, set out the building blocks of a new “progressive” foreign policy in a speech at Chatham House in London on 2 February, but the Labour leader appears to have a personal interest in the world elsewhere only when it is a cause of crisis at home. For the most part his instincts are right – to avoid a rushed and unnecessary referendum on Britain’s place in Europe (one that could lead to the break-up of the British state) and to stay out of the Syrian horror – but he has yet to define what “Milibandism” would mean on the world stage beyond a series of impulses. However, many of his best tunes, such as tackling tax avoidance, the defining issue of the relationship between markets and the modern state, and combating climate change, fall flat without international agreement.

One of Mr Miliband’s chief difficulties as he seeks to return his party to office in May is that he fails the “blink test”: voters cannot yet imagine him wielding power at the highest levels, in the company of world leaders. An indication from the Labour leader that he, at least, can envisage such a thing might do him a power of good.