Adrian Hamilton: The foreign in tonight's debate

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It seems positively perverse to have the second debate between the political leaders on the issues of "Foreign Policy and Europe" when the subject has been barely mentioned in the campaign so far. All this could change after tonight, of course. But so far, it has to be said, our political chiefs have talked about virtually every issue but Europe and foreign policy.

No surprise in this. Politicians don't like to discuss abroad because they're uncertain of public feelings on the subject. This is particularly true of Europe. All the opinion polls show that the voter hasn't much time for the European Union and even less for Brussels. But then their attitude is not so much bitter hatred as, "don't bother me with it". The Lib Dems may be the most openly pro-European but their electoral interests, particularly in the South West, tell them not to stir waters that may bubble against them. The Tories are most obviously anti-European, but, with the prospect of power, are nervous of presenting themselves as a government which could not work with it. As for Labour, it has so far been a policy of "least said, soonest mended." Brown knows that Europe matters and has actually tried to work more with European leaders over the last year, particularly on economic issues. But when it comes to public discussion, he remains far happier to put every question into the framework of "international co-operation" rather than a European one.

The same could be said of discussion of foreign policy in general and defence in particular. To have a real debate about either would involve a questioning of Britain's place in the world and its position over the future – dangerous territory when the cliché of every politician is to proclaim Britain's global importance and the bravery of its armed services. To say, as you might, that the old special relationship with the US is taking us nowhere, that our economic importance is declining and much of our independence is illusory would be to go down roads which political aspirants (wisely) prefer to avoid.

An election only makes that the more so. Campaigning is about labelling. You try as a party leader to label yourself with virtue ("Change", "Recovery", "protecting services"). Even more importantly, you seek to label your opponent with all the wrong images. So when it comes to foreign affairs, the aim is not to elucidate choices, it is to pin accusation on the other. Lib Dem support for the Union is a sell-out of sovereignty, David Cameron's reordering of alliances in the European Parliament can be cast as a reach for the far-right. Labour's policy of open immigration from EU countries is quickly elided into an open- doors policy to benefit scroungers.

And so with defence. Commentators have been quick to point out how ridiculous it is that an election can take place without any discussion of a war in Afghanistan which nearly half the country oppose. But from the point of view of the politicians concerned, even the Lib Dems, what is the value in opening up a subject in which you can be easily painted by your opponents as failing to support our brave boys and encouraging a cut-and-run which would leave both our forces and the government of Afghanistan exposed to a full onslaught from the forces of fundamentalism? No one seriously believes that sacrificing the lives of our troops in Afghanistan is vital to preserving the safety of passengers on the London Tube. But then no one is very happy with the idea of justmaking a dash for the exit.

That may be a reason for applauding the lack of discussion of foreign affairs in this election. It just doesn't suit the cut-and-thrust of labelling. Worse, it encourages the kind of feel-good philosophy of foreign relations that brought us the invasion of Iraq under the guise of humanitarian intervention and the kind of pointless posturing that we now have over Burma and Sudan. Most foreign policy challenges are specific, not general, and demand an understanding of the precise circumstance of place, not some broad theory of right or even interests. Are sanctions a productive approach to dealing with Iran? Should Israel be stopped from gaining privileged access to European markets so long as it pursues its settlement activity? What do we do about North Cyprus? Do we support the security forces or democracy in Pakistan?

Perhaps it is better if we don't debate these questions in the forum of an election. Posturing on foreign policy only ends in tears.

Not that tonight's debate need be fruitless, even if one suspects it will be frustrating so far as policy discussion is concerned. Nick Clegg's supporters believe that his experience as a Member of the European Parliament and his mixed background will give him a natural command of the subject. His opponents will hope to use the issue to lure him out into unpopular positions on immigration, Brussels and nuclear disarmament.

He needn't be. As the article by former military chiefs in The Times yesterday illustrates, opposition to Trident is no longer a mark of mad pacifism. The reasons it has become acceptable to discuss abandoning its replacement are peculiar. It's on grounds of costs rather than relevance. The arguments of the military men – that the money saved should be used to equip our troops – begs a lot of questions (why should we beef up our conventional forces?). But the tide is undoubtedly turning the Liberal Democrat way.

So too with EU. People don't love it any the better but the experience of the volcano shut-down and the questions of climate change and financial regulation have made them much more aware of the need for a European-wide approach. The Lib Dem leader can quite reasonably argue that the fact that the EU is so weak at the moment is no cause to desert it. Just the opposite. We need to be in there shaping what must be done. As for the question of joining the euro, it may be a long-term wish but it's off the agenda for many years to come.

My advice to Clegg is, don't be cautious. Turn foreign policy to your advantage but don't make too much of your background or European experience – the English don't trust cleverness, particularly if it has a Continental tinge.

For further reading

"In Brief: The Parties Positions on Key EU Policies". Open Europe (

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