Insular tendencies: Impressive as the TV debate was, our political leaders showed a worrying lack of awareness of the outside world


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The TV leaders’ debate on Thursday night was a landmark in British election history.

It proved that you can have a live political discussion between the seven people with most to gain and lose from the election without it descending into a mere shouting match. All credit to Julie Etchingham for refereeing so deftly. 

Sadly, it was also a snapshot of a country that has become overwhelmingly inward-looking. How many foreigners arrive on our shores? What proportion of HIV patients are not British nationals? How much of our money leaks out, in the form of overseas aid? How can we escape the law-making tendencies of the European Union? How much money could we save by cutting our nuclear deterrent?

All these questions have their point. But taken together they point to a querulous, cosseted nation, locked inside its comfort zone, blinds down and curtains drawn, concerned exclusively with its own selfish needs and with little knowledge of, and less interest in, the outside world.

Yet if the British constitution is under unusual pressure and strain, it reflects a world in the throes of rapid and combustible change. And the UK is not some Iceland or Liechtenstein or Luxembourg, tiny nations whose impact on international relations can never be more than marginal and whose safest course is to hunker down, maintain a low profile and keep a close eye on the accounts. This is the sixth-richest nation on earth: the world outside our windows is very substantially a world this country has made, for better and worse. To see our political leaders devote only a few mostly negative minutes out of a two-hour conversation to that whole wide world was deeply dismaying.

Nigel Farage must take the lion’s share of the blame for this state of affairs. Ukip appeals to the Little Englander in all of us on this side of Hadrian’s Wall, as he whimsically described the Anglo-Scottish border. He speaks of this country as if it were in intensive care after a series of brutal and unprovoked attacks: emasculated by Brussels, torn at by Scottish and Welsh nationalists, fleeced by crafty foreigners – so badly abused that the idea of its playing any part in the larger world other than that of traumatised victim is fanciful. We want our money back, our sovereignty back, our roads back, our hospital beds back, and once that’s achieved we can lock and bar our doors and then we will be happy. That, in shorthand, is the Ukip manifesto.

It’s a sad and chauvinistic vision that has a bleak appeal to many people who feel the modern world has slipped out of their control. Comparable parties across Europe, including France’s Front National and Italy’s Lega Nord, resonate in the same way and among people with the same frailties. The trouble with this vision is that it puts everyone who has a more expansive, less niggardly view on the back foot.

Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, who put on a strong showing in the TV debate, sounded borderline eccentric when she proposed increasing the overseas aid budget to 1 per cent of GDP. When Nick Clegg, speaking on the same subject, made the obvious point that “making the poorest on the other side of the planet poorer still is not a solution to our problems”, he risked sounding barmy and wet amongst the bone-dry economic fixations of Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband.

Meanwhile, outside the television studios, tumultuous change is under way. Iran is, fingers crossed, on the threshold of returning to having civilised relations with the West. Russia, by contrast, is ever more of a headache. Yet another barbarous terrorist attack, this time in Kenya, a former British colony, was perpetrated a few hours before the debate. There is the spreading evil that is Isis. A new Middle East war rages in another former British colony, Yemen. Greece teeters on the brink of a possible Grexit.

The British Government cannot ignore any of these developments, and at this unique moment in the political cycle we, the electorate, should be demanding answers from our would-be masters. Cowering behind the sofa is not good enough.