Foreign policy in the 2019 election

Foreign policy does not tend to be a hot topic in general elections, with some notable exceptions. Manifestos tend to include platitudes and largely meaningless phrases, outlining some broad brushstrokes of policy, but with very little tangible detail, reflecting the changing nature of foreign policy, and the dynamics involved in international relations. A quick glance as the positioning of foreign policy in the Labour and Conservative Party manifestos will give you some idea of its lack of prominence during election time, starting on page 51 in the Conservative party manifesto and page 95 in the Labour party manifesto. There are, however, key differences between the two parties on foreign policy, not just in policy terms but also in style, which is more unusual to see and a result of the leadership of Corbyn and the move of the Labour party away from the centre of British politics.

The Conservative manifesto includes a fairly traditional, some might even say staid, outline of their foreign policy aims. There is certainly nothing dynamic in the manifesto coming from the party being led by a former Foreign Secretary. Instead, the section on foreign policy includes discussion of the armed forces, some mention of Brexit and even a short section on international sporting events. The manifesto is heavy on values but light on detail, implying that the Conservatives are the party of the armed forces and the protector of British values. There is a commitment to maintaining the headline figure of 0.7% GDP funding for overseas development aid, and support for several of the UN Millennium Development Goals, but no detail on how these lofty aims will be achieved.

This is grist to the mill for manifestos but particularly noticeable in an age where the consequences of Brexit will mean foreign affairs takes on a new significance and any government will have to be very clear on which international friendships they need to maintain. For the Conservatives, foreign policy is presented in a very traditional way, with a focus on military strength and an underlying assumption that Britain is a key global player and will remain so. Of course, that narrative will not only be warmly received by Conservative party supporters, but is also necessary for a party staking its political reputation on its pro-Brexit credentials and ability to “get Brexit done”. To admit any potential damage to Britain’s global standing or reputation at the hands of the Conservative party would be unthinkable, and the manifesto reflects this, projecting only strength.

The Labour party manifesto is noticeably different to that of the Conservatives, although different does not automatically mean better. The Labour manifesto has a ‘lead in’ section entitled “A New Internationalism” which outlines the general aims of the party. The focus here is on multilateralism, more co-operation with other nations and a ‘ask question first, act later’ approach. The party tries to put its Iraqi ghosts to bed by indicating it will enact all the recommendations of the Chilcot Inquiry and promises to enshrine in law the modern-day convention of Prime Ministers seeking Parliamentary ascent for overseas military action. The manifesto also references specific issues within foreign policy, such as the ongoing issues over the Chagos Islands, and the imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The most striking feature of the manifesto though is not the detail, but the tone. For the Labour party, foreign policy needs to move in a more measured, more ethically driven direction, perhaps accidentally reminding readers of the early years of the Blair government. Hot heads will be replaced by measured negotiation and a desire to resolve long-standing conflicts, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict or an investigation into the impact of British colonialism. These are certainly lofty aims, and few would disagree that negotiation and a cool-head are important in international affairs, but what is the cost of this? Banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over their actions in Yemen may be morally justifiable, but what is the economic impact for the UK? Arms sales, while unpalatable, are a profitable industry and many individuals within the UK make their living working in this industry. How do you sell a globally moral stance if it has economic consequences for those who you are representing?

While foreign policy may not be a particular vote winner for either the Labour or Conservative party, the next occupant of number ten will affect the foreign policy aims and processes of the UK. A Conservative victory means that foreign policy continues on in a familiar way, with the unknown impacts of Brexit looming on the horizon. Were the Labour party to win, or be in a coalition of some kind, foreign policy making as we know it would have changed extensively. However, as has been seen before, good deeds and kind words do not necessarily lead to a change in the harsh realities of the world. For both parties, their aims will almost certainly be over-written by their immediate international needs, making the manifesto pledges impractical.