LEADING ARTICLE:Britain's place on the map

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The Independent Online
"One of the few points on which the Foreign Office and I agreed," writes Baroness Thatcher in her memoirs, "was the need for British embassies to be architecturally imposing and provided with fine paintings and furniture." An embassy, in her view - and whose could be drier? - served as a flagship for the promotion of British interests. "Cutting back on expenditure on generating the right image of Britain abroad is sheer foolishness," she concluded.

Perhaps it is symptomatic of our ruling party's loss of vision that today's conference on Britain in the World should be heralded not by thoughtful debate but by drab ministerial point-scoring over the allegedly excessive cost of our diplomacy.

The price of prestige, the utilitarian analysis of entertainment, the weight of history - we can expect to hear all these themes evoked today. The central aim of the conference is to launch a debate about Britain's overseas interests and the country's place in a rapidly shifting global order. In the best traditions of British foreign policy, it springs from a mixture of enlightened liberalism and pragmatic self-interest. This is clearly a good moment to examine where Britain stands. At the same time, the conference will focus attention on the vital nature of our effort abroad, thereby assisting the Foreign Office case that it should be spared the full rigours of the public spending round.

Britain traditionally abhors the abstract and the idealistic in its diplomacy, an approach that is echoed from Palmerston's claim that this country has no eternal friends nor enemies but only eternal interests, to Douglas Hurd's definition of his ideal foreign policy as "a mixture of Gladstone and the saloon bar".

Modern realism demands a rather more unsparing examination of our state than perhaps the Foreign Secretary has in mind. It is all very admirable to affirm the universal appeal of our language, the distinction of our culture, the vigour of our businessmen, the professionalism of our soldiers and the skill of our diplomats. (Let us hope, incidentally, that Mr Hurd will not shirk this opportunity to renew his praise for the excellence of the BBC World Service.) But it is not quite enough.

To define its place in the world, Britain must first resolve its dilemma over Europe. Yet this is a question upon which the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been manoeuvred into paralysis. It will be fascinating to behold whether a conference sponsored by these gentlemen can provide a forum for the incisive examination of such inconsistencies. How, for example, may Britain ease the tension between its instinct for free trade and its membership of an economic and perhaps monetary union alongside countries with a much different economic history and tradition? It will be equally compelling to discover if Robin Cook, the shadow foreign secretary, has anything that smacks of clear thought on the subject.

Then there is this country's frayed relationship with the United States, a gloomy parody of Harold Macmillan's aspiration that we could play Athens to America's modern Rome. Fortunately, Henry Kissinger, whose latest book on diplomacy delineates our decline, will be on hand to provide the blunt assessment against which Britain's global stature needs to be measured.

Within the cloisters of the Foreign Office the quality of debate is rarely in doubt. Less sure is its ability to think beyond the masterly exposition of a brief, to consider the unthinkable and, just occasionally, to value the provocative. Can Britain afford the Trident nuclear deterrent and keep it out of strategic arms negotiations? Is our permanent seat on the UN Security Council worth the cost in international commitment? Is it truly the wish of the British people that our troops should be promoted as if commodities for export? Mr Hurd has declared the debate open: well then, let it commence.

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