Britain is responding to the crisis in Ukraine without a coherent foreign policy. And that’s a very good thing

There is no 'Hague doctrine'. Cameron tried out being Blair. He got nowhere

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Almost unnoticed, Britain has ceased to have a foreign policy. The UK may withdraw from the EU in a few years’ time. Then again it may not. Parts of Ukraine yearn to form a relationship with the EU. The UK does not know whether it wants to be part of the EU or in a position of vaguely defined isolation.

Meanwhile Tony Blair’s support for “liberal intervention” – a shallow combination of messianic advocacy and defensive expediency – has few takers any more. David Cameron tried to make the case once again in relation to Syria, and thankfully was defeated in the Commons. One of the more bizarre arguments to surface in the current muddle over Ukraine is that the vote against military intervention in Syria gave Putin the space to make his moves. Putin would have acted irrespective of what had happened in Syria.

Indeed President Obama was probably uneasy when he discussed with David Cameron the current knife-edge situation in Ukraine. Not so long ago Cameron was urging Obama to take military action in Syria only to phone him to say that he had lost a vote in the Commons and the UK would take no part. Obama must wonder a little whether Cameron is in control of UK foreign policy.

The vote in relation to Syria shows that Cameron is not fully in control. Obama recently described France as being as close an ally to the US as the UK. As the former Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, noted at the time, this observation was another humiliation for the UK, the country that had stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the US in all its misjudged invasions – invasions that France had opposed. There is no relationship of any great special-ness between the US and the UK.

But it would be wrong to regard Britain’s previous foreign policy stances as especially worthy or robust. Margaret Thatcher screamed about Europe while signing up to every new treaty. She adored Ronald Reagan but struggled to secure his support for the Falklands War. In the meantime she had the courage to oppose some of his military interventions.

Blair’s much quoted “Chicago Speech”, delivered in advance of Iraq, could have been deployed to justify either war or further diplomatic activity. It gave an insecure leader the space to appear strong. But it also gave him flexibility at a time of nervy calculations. Blair’s wider foreign policy was pro-US and pro-Europe. He argued that the UK was the bridge between the two. The bridge collapsed over Iraq.

 

Now Britain has no foreign policy. There is no “Hague doctrine”. Cameron tried out being Blair abroad, as he has to some extent at home. He got nowhere. Now what happens? Does the UK become part of a coordinated EU response even though the UK is not supposed to approve of an EU foreign policy? Should it leave the diplomatic activity to the currently deified Angela Merkel? She, after all, has a reasonable relationship with Putin.

But surely the notion of Merkel speaking for the EU is even worse from the Eurosceptics’ perspective than the prospect of the EU acting with some form of collective voice. Should the UK leave it to the US, or act again as its echo? This has not happened so far, with Hague’s more cautious tone closer to that adopted by other EU leaders.

All the leaders are busking it. As Mary Dejevksy made clear in her illuminating column in yesterday’s Independent, Putin is to some extent busking it too. Dejevsky points out that Putin began by responding pragmatically to the protests in Kiev and  has only changed his approach in the past few days.

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The reaction in the West has been noisy but incoherent. The UK has been fairly typical of the response, sounding quite tough before announcing that the Duke of Wessex would not be attending the Paralympic Winter Olympics. The Duke’s absence is unlikely to have them trembling in Moscow.

Given the bloody mess that arose when the UK almost had a foreign policy it is better for now that it does not have one. This is not a moment for any country to become trapped in a dangerous course of action from which there is no escape.

It is of course crazy that at a time of economic and international fragility the  UK contemplates pulling out of the EU,  and the sooner this particular ambiguity  is resolved the better. But in the multi-faceted complexity of Ukraine, where an elected president has been deposed and protesters in Kiev have diverse objectives for a divided country, pragmatic flexibility is the only stance available to the UK  and the one that makes most sense.

Owen’s defection to Labour is damning for Cameron’s ‘reform’

Political defections are a reliable barometer. They give an accurate picture of the tidal direction. The failure of Cameron/Osborne to attract a single high-profile defector highlights the limits of their appeal. In the late 1970s and 1980s there were a series of high-profile defections from Labour to the Conservatives as Margaret Thatcher won landslides, and David Owen’s endorsement of Labour over the weekend deserves a little more attention in this context.

It is a semi-defection in that Owen remains a crossbencher in the Lords, but given his provocative role in the formation of the SDP in the early 1980s, his support is significant. If David Cameron had genuinely reformed his party, Owen could have been precisely the sort of heavyweight political figure who might have at least offered approving comments.

Owen is something of a Eurosceptic these days, though not a supporter of withdrawal, and he has always been an advocate of what he calls the social market economy. But with good cause he is horrified by Cameron’s chaotic NHS reforms, and he retains a commitment to social justice.

I bumped into him once at a New Labour-ish book launch and he complained to me that New Labour didn’t seem interested in equality. The next election will be close,  but Owen’s move suggests that much of  the centre-left is uniting as the election moves into view.

The great unanswerable question is whether Ukip will split the right-wing vote in anything like the way the SDP divided anti-Tory support in the 1980s. For now, Owen backs Labour as Farage makes hay.

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