Is Britain giving up on foreign policy?

It's taken so long for people to wake up to its marginalisation under the coalition government in Britain

Are the Generals falling out of love with their Prime Minister? General Sir Richard Shirreff has publicly criticised David Cameron’s absence from team Europe’s efforts to try and stop Ukraine sliding into unstoppable conflict. As he told the BBC: "The UK is a major Nato member, it is a major EU member, it is a member of the UN security council, and it is unfortunate that the weight that the British prime minister could bring to efforts to resolve this crisis appear to be absent."

Until 2014 Sir Richard was the UK’s highest ranking Nato commander. He was echoing the criticism from General Jonathan Shaw who commanded Britain’s special forces (SAS). In his new book Britain in a Perilous World (Haus Books) he describes David Cameron as "a PM seemingly more interested in the instant gratification of action rather than the tedious discipline of deep, coherent thought".

This is remarkable language from an Oxford-educated senior army officer and one who is the son of a former Conservative MP – so not to be suspected of left-liberal deviationism.

But the impression of Britain opting out of joined-up foreign policy just as Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande get serious about what happens beyond their frontiers is gaining ground abroad.

At a recent French cabinet meeting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius complained openly to his fellow ministers that Britain was consistently unhelpful in developing a European response to global challenges that Paris, Berlin and other EU capitals now cooperate on. This was underlined by Chancellor Merkel’s visit to President Obama as part of her shuttle diplomacy between Kiev, Moscow, Washington, Minsk and Brussels in recent days.

The French paper Figaro published an article "David Cameron Shines by His Absence on the International Diplomatic Stage" on the prime minister’s absence from the common efforts to present a united front to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.


Meanwhile, the Financial Times was cruelly dismissive about the irrelevance of Chancellor George Osborne in the current work in Europe to solve the Greece crisis with the scathing "Britain’s bystander role is at its most absurd when delusions of importance persuade domestic policy makers to tell the Eurozone how to run its affairs."

Yet what is odd is why it has taken so long for Generals, French ministers and the serious press to wake up to the marginalisation of foreign and security policy under the coalition government in Britain.

The briefest glance at Cameron and his successive foreign and defence ministers would throw up the following examples of failure:

• More than 450 men have died pointlessly in Afghanistan on Cameron’s watch because he had no strategy to wind up an unwinnable conflict and no courage – in contrast to leaders of Canada and Nato allies in Europe – to stop having young men used as Taliban target practice.

• The utter failure of Libya when Cameron sought to walk tall with the equally un-strategic Nicolas Sarkozy has turned Libya into Jihad Central – both an armoury and training ground for Islamist violence. Moreover it is the funnel through which African migrants pour by their thousands into Italy, Malta or other Mediterranean states before heading north to England.

• The contemptuous treatment of our European partners and allies has lost friends and influence. The obsession with out-Ukipping UKIP with attacks on the EU as well as unsavoury alliances with nationalists in the European Parliament, including anti-Jewish politicians from Poland and Latvia, has damaged Britain’s status in Europe.

• The decision to scrap aircraft carriers has left Britain without serious naval projection capability this decade for the first time in 300 years. There are now more prisoners in British prisons than soldiers in the British army.

• William Hague’s mercantalist policy imposed on the Foreign Office has seen Britain’s balance of trade deficit increase to record levels. Every country Hague visited as Foreign Secretary saw a rise in trade deficits.

• The scrapping of the FCO’s human rights report first published by Labour’s Robin Cook has lost Britain’s voice as a leader in this field. Cameron has still never pronounced a word on the fate of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate, while Nick Clegg admitted he had not heard of the flogging of the Saudi journalist Raif Badawi.

• Cameron’s dismissal of the unanimous resolution of the House of Commons calling for sanctions on the Putin officials responsible for the death in atrocious conditions of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer employed by a British firm contrasts with President Obama signing the US Congress ‘Justice for Magnitsky Act’ into law. It is worth reading the new book Red List. How I Became Putin’s No 1 Enemy (Bantam Book) by Bill Browder, the British investment fund boss turned human rights campaigner, to see how much Russian oligarch money influences Cameron’s idea of Britain.

Unlike the blunt Generals Shirreff and Shaw, Britain’s diplomats are too polite to rock the boat but they are deeply unhappy at the marginalisation of diplomacy, frightened about a Brexit referendum, and dismayed at the absence of any clear vision of what Britain’s role in the world should be.

In 1980, Britain spent 8 per cent of gross domestic product on defence and security and 7 per cent on health. Now we spend 12 per cent of GDP on health and 2 per cent on security without much evidence that we are a healthier or more secure nation.

Despite the UK’s excellent think-tanks on foreign policy from the venerable Chatham House to the newer European Council on Foreign Relations and Centre for European Reform fewer and fewer MPs of any party show an interest and very rarely attend foreign policy seminars and conferences.

Britain is becoming an introverted nation just wanting to pull the duvet over its collective head and hoping the rest of the world, especially Europe will simply go away.

Denis MacShane was PPS and Minister in the FCO 1997-2005, then UK delegate on the Council of Europe for five years. His book, Brexit: Why Britain Will Leave Europe, is published by IB Tauris on 25 February