It is easier to predict the past than to peer into the future: to analyse failure, than to find the route to success. Today, a Tory party study group is publishing an "interim policy paper on security issues". But that title understates the boldness of the authors' ambitions: they are trying to rethink British foreign policy. They believe foreign affairs, defence, national security - and national cohesion - must all be considered in the same context.
They start from three bleak premises. First, the intervention in Iraq has failed so badly that the threat to Britain is greater than it was before 2003. Second, the Blair government's neglect of diplomacy has made it much harder for Britain to achieve its objectives. Third, we have mishandled our relations with Washington. Though the report is contemptuous of anti-Americanism, it also acknowledges that, to a large extent, this is a self-inflicted wound. In David Cameron's words, future British governments should be candid friends of the US, not junior partners too timid to voice an opinion.
As a brief and elegant dissection of error, the report cannot be faulted. It would also be unreasonable to criticise the authors for failing to produce an entire new foreign policy. Over the past century, there have only been four fundamental changes in British foreign policy. Two were involuntary: the other two, of dubious merit. Just over 100 years ago, Lord Lansdowne negotiated the Entente Cordiale. This meant that after the era of splendid but insecure isolation, Britain had allies on the European mainland. But that entailed our involvement in the First World War.
The next two changes of direction were forced upon us, the first by the collapse of appeasement and the second by the failure of Suez. After Suez came the other voluntary change. Most of the British diplomatic establishment became convinced our destiny lay in Europe. But they did not convince many other people.
It could be argued that it is time for a fifth attempt to remould foreign policy. But for the moment our authors are concentrating on security and on process. They do not object to Tony Blair's high-minded and humanitarian objectives. They merely insist his attempts to achieve them have been cack-handed and often counter-productive. The words coherence, judgement, patience and balance recur in the text: four qualities conspicuously absent from British foreign policy in recent years.
The authors would start by applying them in the Middle East. They propose a new partnership for open societies, to promote peaceful change. Instead of democracy at the barrel of a tank, there would be diplomacy. Attempts would be made to involve India and Japan as well as the permanent members of the Security Council.
In theory, it is a good idea. Yet the practical problem is self-evident. How could such a body achieve leverage on events? If it were coming into being in less embattled circumstances, matters might be easier - but even then, there would be the matter of Palestine. Five years ago, it seemed as if all the roads to peace in the Middle East ran through Baghdad. Now, it is the West Bank: a small territory, but full of road blocks.
The Israelis feel insecure: distrustful alike of their own political elite and the Americans. The moderate Arabs feel insecure, and distrustful of the Americans. The immoderate Arabs feel buoyed up and disdainful of the Americans. The authors of this report wish to encourage "progressive reform',' an admirable goal even if tautological. But where is the necessary momentum?
On security matters, the document argues there ought to be a cabinet-level security minister. This makes sense. The Home Office is too big. That would be true even under a Home Secretary less obsessed by his own political standing than the current one. Last week, John Reid was worried by the threat of the Ipswich murders. If the murderer is not caught by Christmas, he declaimed, will I be able to survive? The murder of a political career; that is a terrible crime.
The study group believes that there is still insufficient co-ordination between the various bodies responsible for security. So they propose a national security council, to be chaired by the Prime Minister. Several of them have had prolonged experience of security matters. Tom King was Northern Ireland Secretary and Defence Secretary. The chairman, Pauline Neville-Jones, is also former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which does good work as long as Alastair Campbell is not interfering. Not that Dame Pauline would have brooked any such interference. She is the most formidable female diplomat the Foreign Office has yet produced. But there is an irony. Those who observed her distinguished career in the Foreign Office will be amused that a report largely written by her should stress the merits of humility and patience.
She and her distinguished committee are to be congratulated. Though their views in no way bind David Cameron, he is in sympathy with them. He also feels vindicated. He insisted that before rushing into policy pronouncements, the Tory party should do a great deal of hard thinking and that it should not be afraid of controversy, heated debate or intellectual honesty. If this report is typical of the hard-thought product, there will be a formidable amount of good material.Reuse content