Leading Article: Mr Rifkind's not so grand illusions

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Malcolm Rifkind managed to cite Palmerston, Thomas Jefferson, Metternich and GK Chesterton in his first important speech as Foreign Secretary yesterday, but their accumulated wisdom did not illuminate his text with a vision beyond the advocate's brief.

If there was a Rifkind Doctrine on view at Chatham House, it consisted of the vague proposition that it might be better, on occasion, to absent oneself from the deliberations of a club where one exercises a little influence, rather than to remain at the risk of one's vital interests.

Europe was, inevitably, what he had in mind when making this point. He went on to caution against "an artificial consensus, a bogus unity, that lacks credibility or conviction". But since those conditions also apply all too evidently to our ruling party, this was the Foreign Secretary's moment to place himself ... er, somewhere in the middle. No doubt his taut phrases about European policy will be consumed with interest in the Westminster hothouse. But this was also a speech with which Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs would impart his philosophy of principle and practice in foreign affairs and spell out where he sees Britain in the world.

If this is the best Mr Rifkind and Conservatism have to offer, then it is a pallid, uninspiring thing. Robbed of the simple definitions provided by the Cold War, Mr Rifkind finds himself attuned to a new vocabulary of policy-speak, in which marketing nostrum jostles with business-school jargon to form a fashionable political language.

So we are invited to contemplate a Britain deferring to the pressures of "globalisation," whose on-rush Mr Rifkind asserted with the certainty once reserved by Marxists for the inevitable fall of capitalism. This Britain floats offshore from a Europe shackled to burdensome "social policies", tugged into the Atlantic on a tide of free trade, submitting its sovereignty to markets but shying away from European bureaucrats. The Foreign Secretary depicted a Britain "pre-eminently a nation of traders and travellers", whose foreign assets are vast, whose attraction to foreign investors is second only to the United States, whose eyes look to the authoritarian emerging economies of Asia for both example and marketplace. The vision, presumably, cheerfully embraces the idea of teenagers working the "zero hours" contract at Burger King.

The sub-text is simple. It suggests this country can somehow substitute for an entire generation of post-war development in Europe a free-trading offshore existence as a bigger version of Singapore or Switzerland. Dressed up in much talk about a chimerical Atlantic Community and a Free Trade nirvana stretching through the ruined economies of eastern Europe, it speaks of avoiding an obsession with seeking "influence" in Brussels, while trumpeting the influence of Britain in the United Nations and extending wildly and vaguely the search for influence elsewhere. It amounts to a grand illusion.

It is, however, the illusion that John Major and his ministers will propound until the next election, regardless of the fact that the pressures for rapid advance on the dread subject of European monetary union continue to ebb. No doubt this stuff will keep the back benches quiet - for a week or two.