It is an odd but perhaps telling fact of British politics that, assuming Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister, the country will for the first time since the War have a leader of government and a leader of the opposition with no experience of foreign policy.
James Callaghan, John Major, Douglas Home, and Anthony Eden had all been Foreign Secretaries or a minister before becoming PM. Attlee had wide experience as Churchill's deputy in the war. Edward Heath had special responsibility for foreign affairs as Lord Privy Seal and even Harold Wilson had had a stint as opposition spokesman for foreign affairs before rising to the top. The single exception has been Tony Blair, although Eden's disaster at Suez might suggest that too much knowledge may not be a good thing in foreign affairs.
The difficulty now of having such inexperience at the top of the two main parties (Menzies Campbell being an honourable exception) is that it comes just when foreign politics has never been more important to the country or more in a state of flux.
The hopes of the Brownites that the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq would somehow find a convenient exit strategy for their candidate before he took over have now been dashed. Far from following the route out mapped by James Baker, President Bush seems to have decided to do the opposite, to double up in Iraq not contract.
That raises the prospect for any British prime minister, and opposition leader, of an intensifying conflict within Iran and a fracturing Congress in the US over the summer and autumn. Add to that the continuing travails of a British force in Afghanistan left under-resourced and the ever-present prospect that President Bush, in an effort to detract from his troubles at home, decides to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, and you have a whole raft of dilemmas for any British government.
Nor, despite the Conservative Party's fervent prayer, is Europe by any means off the agenda. The current German presidency of the EU has revived the Franco-German push for at least a limited new constitution. Any British prime minister when the German-hosted summit takes place at the end of June - a time when Gordon Brown will only just have taken over - will have to make up his mind where the UK stands. It would be wrong to say that Gordon Brown or David Cameron are totally unprepared for this. Indeed, it is arguable that no British prime minister in living memory has had his path quite so well prepared by the Civil Service as the current Chancellor.
Ever since Gus O'Donnell took over as Cabinet Secretary a little over a year ago from serving Gordon Brown as permanent secretary in the Treasury, officialdom has bent itself to ensuring a seamless transition of the premiership whenever it took place. And what is more it has done so on the confident basis that it would be Brown that succeeded Blair.
The result has been that virtually all the recent senior Civil Service appointments have been made in consultation with the Chancellor and, in No 10 itself, the decks are being cleared of the officials most closely associated with Blair with Brownite replacement in mind. This is true especially of the foreign office advisers, all of whom now seem to have been offered ambassadorships or roles in international institutions.
Nor, on the other side of the House, is David Cameron quite as green as he was where foreign affairs are concerned. Within the past couple of months the Leader of the Opposition has been to visit the troops in Iraq, following an earlier visit to Afghanistan, and has quietly slipped over to Brussels to make his peace with the European Commission and forge apparently cordial relations with its president, Jose Manuel Barroso.
The visits have produced no great new policy initiatives for the Tory party. But what they have done is shown how far the Conservative leader is prepared to go to distance himself from the Washington of George Bush and to promote a more case-by-case policy towards Europe in which united policy on the environment can be seen as good and a new constitution remains bad.
Such flexibility of reaction has its advantage at a time of uncertainty. The real concern about Cameron, as Brown, is less their inexperience than their lack of any developed view of how they see the world shaping itself in the coming years.
Other than a rather vague Tory commitment to British sovereignty and a deep suspicion that Europe wants to take it away from us, Cameron seems to have no opinion as to whether the original decision to invade Iraq was wrong in principle or just in post-invasion practice. All he will say is that he voted for it with a heavy heart - whatever that means.
Gordon Brown's views are no easier to define. Indeed, in some ways they are even more difficult to establish. This is partly because the Chancellor has chosen so deliberately to confine himself to matters of finance and domestic policy and say nothing on the wider world. He attends meetings of finance ministers abroad, but races away as soon as they are over. He has taken more recently to establishing his humanitarian concern for Africa, but appears blissfully ignorant, or deliberately obtuse, on the questions of governance, corruption and tribal fracturing that lie behind so much of African poverty.
When it comes to the Middle East he looks to his small group of economic and political advisers, who can talk of oil prices but not Palestinian rights. When it comes to Europe he falls back on his transatlantic preference. The Commission, enlargement, the problems of the constitution pass him by. He is totally complicit in the decision to go to war in Iraq but would still like to stand aside from it. Perhaps he will be better advised by the officials now being prepared for him. But even here there needs to be a note of caution. The Foreign Office of today is no longer the high-maintenance, oiled machine of yesterday. Tony Blair's preference for making policy with a few confidantes in No 10, coupled with the ignoring of its advice on the Middle East and the loss of a positive British policy in Europe, has left it lacking in both clout and self-confidence.
Gordon Brown is keen to reform government around his "theme" of security and combating terror, both of which he views from an essentially domestic perspective. His willingness to see the world on its own terms has yet to be displayed.
In foreign affairsevents tend to force clear judgement. When the US comes to ask permission to refuel at Prestwick on its way to bomb Iran, or the French and Germans present a new constitution to sign, you have to know what you believe to be right.
At this moment the public can have no idea what either Brown or Cameron would do. International events are unlikely to give them the luxury of indecision.Reuse content