October 22, 2001
It is a truism that high politics is obsessed with foreign policy, while domestic issues are largely ignored outside election time. In America this takes on a rather shadowy and conspiratorial form, as "bipartisanship" means that elected politicians largely follow the Establishment view on foreign policy – and it is within the Establishment that the decisions are taken. Britain is, for once, more open on this. Since the election of Michael Foot, a left-winger, in the 1980 leadership election of the Labour Party, British voters have had a choice on the foreign policy offered by their two parties.
For a generation before 1980, all decent politicians who aspired to high office had to believe in three things. (1) The Soviet Union was a Bad Thing. (2) The days of plucky little Britain standing on her own (let alone holding on to her empire) were gone – more of that in the next column. (3) The only way to fight against the Soviet Union was to team up with the Yanks. Now Michael Foot was cut from a slightly different mould. He was a longstanding unilateralist, meaning that he wanted to get rid of British nuclear weapons without waiting for other powers to do so. This would have been merely eccentric if he just meant that he wanted to get rid of Britain's nuclear weapons, but he also wanted American nuclear weapons off his patch. This was seen as blowing apart the American nuclear shield over Europe, and de-facto breaking up the alliance with America (the most entertaining description of this viewpoint is Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol). Foot didn't quite see it like that but his arguments didn't convince.
Not for the first time in British politics, a matter of foreign policy shook up party alignments. Three prominent Labour politicians (and some architect named Bill Rogers) declared that they thought that they could not belong to a party that wanted to throw away our nuclear weapons and lead us out of the European Economic Community. It must be stated that Euro-enthusiasm hadn't really caught on at the time, going into Europe was seen by many as a painless way of getting European living standards and by others as a crucial part of the anti-Soviet Alliance. This gang coalesced into the "Social Democratic Party" as those protesting at the perceived Marxist drift of the Labour Party took the name most associated with the earliest Marxist parties, proving that the British political class do not lack irony. These daring renegades threw away this promising start by allying themselves with the tiny Liberal Party and becoming "The Alliance". They promised to break the mould, and they did – just not in quite the way they intended to.
The history of the Social Democratic Party is pretty much downhill from there. In the 1983 election, they lost almost all their MPs. However they fatally split the leftwing vote, and drove down the Labour total to pitiful levels. The Labour vote deserved to be driven down to pitiful levels as they advocated re-nationalisation and increasing taxes across the board. The manifesto's biggest purchaser was the Conservative fundraising department – who simply sent it with a donation slip to various companies. The Tories raised millions. However among their policies was withdrawal from the European Union and a ban on all (read American) nuclear facilities in Britain. For the first time that century, the British electorate had been given a straightforward choice on the most important foreign policy issue facing her. For the record, they voted to keep on the American side.
Michael Foot resigned and left it to his young protégé, Neil Kinnock, to lead the fight. As is the way with young protégés, young Neil started dissembling his masters' handiwork. He softened on nuclear weapons and stopped calling for withdrawal from the European Union. Therefore, when Labour went to the polls in 1987 they were a watered down choice but a choice nonetheless. After the election, Labour decided to ditch its commitment to unilateralism, and to become as pro-Europe as the Conservatives. As luck would have it the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union wound up in 1991, meaning that Britain's stance towards it was no longer the most important foreign policy issue.
So what was the most important issue effecting British foreign policy? As no one would be shocked to read, it was Europe. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher made the now infamous "Bruges Speech" in which she sounded the alarm on moves towards European federalism. After some pushing and shoving with most of her cabinet (and Michael Heseltine who had left in 1985, partially over her insufficient ardour for Europe) she was forced out. Consequently John Major came in to power and went to the country with a policy only mildly more Eurosceptic than the Labour Party. In the Maastricht treaty he managed to win "opt outs" for Britain from Europe wide social policy and from Economic and Monetary Union. Labour promised in 1992 to end the opt-out on social policy, but was vague on Economic Union, promising only to " play an active part in negotiations". 1992 was not an election were the British had much of a choice on foreign policy, indeed it was not an issue that most of the British electorate cared about. Not that it mattered much, but the Tories won.
The European issue, as I pointed out above, was brewing. With the fall of communism, many right-wing pro-Europeans could not see the point of Europe any more. It was also a time when the level of economic freedom, and the long-term economic growth, in Britain was higher than in the European Community (as it still is). Conservative activists suddenly started paying a keen interest in what Eurosceptics such as the "Bruges Group" had to say. That attention heightened after the election when the people of Denmark narrowly rejected the Maastricht treaty. This had a knock on effect in September when the financial markets forced Britain out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. When it came for a debate on ratifying the Maastricht treaty there was considerable opposition within the normally docile Conservative Party. In fact the opponents won a vote, and forced a motion of confidence. From that point on John Major always had to pay some attention to the Eurosceptics he so despised. It meant that in 1997 and 2001, the voters were once again offered a choice on the most important foreign policy issue facing the British people.
The British people, almost by accident got a choice on foreign policy at the ballot box. It is ironic that the next big choice on foreign policy, whether we go with America or we go alone, will not be put to the British people.
Note to readers. If any of my British readers has any inside information on the suppression of the Monday Club or "Right Now!", or any information on the defection of Robert Skidelsky – I would be grateful. Confidence is, of course, assured.
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