During his recent lecture in London, Tony Blair recalled his time in office and declared with pride: “We led in the world.” The remark was derided by those unable to view the former prime minister as anything other than the plaything of George W Bush, but it was not without justification. It was in 1999, when Bush was still an isolationist opposed to “nation-building”, that Blair delivered his speech in Chicago on the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and identified Saddam Hussein as a continuing enemy. Throughout his premiership, Britain’s foreign policy was defined by a coherent set of values and principles that supporters could applaud and opponents could denounce.
The contrast with the present government is marked. When David Cameron became Tory leader, he told his aides: “Look, this is an area where I need help.” The events of this summer suggest that he still does.
Confronted by the savagery of Isis, he has oscillated between belligerence and caution, alienating almost all sides in the process. His talk of a “generational struggle” against the jihadists, necessitating the use of military power, has disconcerted his party’s isolationists. “How many more failures do we have to endure before we learn to stay out of the Middle East?” one told me. His simultaneous refusal to recall parliament to seek approval for British action dismayed interventionists who believe that the UK’s responsibilities cannot be upheld through humanitarian and quasi-military support alone.
Those close to the Prime Minister reply that he agrees with the latter point – but he is not prepared to risk a repeat of last year’s defeat over Syria, or to run ahead of a war-weary electorate. Yet even if one forgives this refusal to lead, rather than to follow, the facts do not support his assessment.
Of the 30 Tory MPs who voted against possible military action in Syria last year, I know of at least eight prepared to support intervention in Iraq, even before ministers have made the case. Nor is there inconsistency in their approach. As one, Sarah Wollaston, has noted, intervention in Syria was opposed precisely because it carried the risk of arms falling into the hands of such groups as Isis. The public, too, is not composed of Little England isolationists, as it is commonly thought to be. More than a week before the beheading of the US journalist James Foley, opinion polls showed a plurality in favour of air strikes. The government’s defeat last summer, more the product of accident than design, should not have been a turning point in British foreign policy, but the Prime Minister could yet ensure it becomes one.
If there is any consolation for Cameron, it is that he is not alone in failing to articulate a set of principles for the post-Blair era. Nearly four years after his election as Labour leader, Ed Miliband has yet to make a set-piece speech on foreign policy. As a result of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and his success in preventing a “rush to war” in Syria, Westminster has labelled him as a non-interventionist. In response, Labour strategists emphasise that his stance on the latter was “a decision, not a doctrine”. But this only invites the question of what Miliband’s doctrine is.
There is still time for the Labour leader to redress this – Blair did not deliver his first major speech on the subject until 1997 – and he would be wise to do so. His MPs, some of whom (Ben Bradshaw, Mike Gapes, Pat McFadden, John Woodcock) have been making the interventionist case, and the public, increasingly disturbed by images of a war-torn world, are waiting. Tom Watson, one of the party’s most influential backbenchers, told me: “Most countries will be extremely disappointed that Britain seems to have given up on foreign policy for the last five weeks . . . Cameron has given Labour a huge opportunity.”
The opposition has more freedom in this than the Liberal Democrats, who earned such renown for their lone stand against the Iraq war (a decision far riskier than it later appeared). Shackled by coalition, they have struggled to say anything distinctive.
Those who look for enlightenment outside Westminster will similarly find their search is in vain. Boris Johnson, who aspires to become prime minister, has proposed revoking the presumption of innocence for some terrorism suspects. This, despite declaring in 2005: “It must remain an inalienable principle of our law that, if the state has enough evidence to incarcerate someone, then it must have enough evidence to put him on trial.”
Nigel Farage, the other extra-parliamentary star of British politics, offers nothing beyond an anglicised version of the “America First” isolationism espoused by the US conservative Pat Buchanan. Alex Salmond, who hopes soon to lead a state of his own, limits himself to platitudes about the need for an end to “illegal wars” and expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin. Even for those inured to the defects of modern politics, it is a dismal spectacle.
If British politicians no longer feel inclined to “reorder this world”, as Blair phrased it in his pomp, it is not without reason. The west’s recent history of intervention – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – has demonstrated an infinite capacity to make a bad situation worse. There is nothing ignoble in a policy rooted in the principle suggested by Barack Obama: “Don’t do stupid stuff” (a colloquial version of the Hippocratic “First, do no harm”). The further austerity postponed until after the general election may in any case force Britain to adopt a policy better aligned with its reduced military capacity. But Westminster awaits the politician prepared to anatomise this new era and the country’s role in it. The alternative, as Winston Churchill observed in 1936, is that Britain remains “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute” and “adamant for drift”.