Shaping Britain in a failed Tory image

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A CONSERVATIVE American columnist once snarlingly defined for me a liberal foreign policy: 'The liberal looks hard to see where his national interest is and then, on every occasion, unhesitatingly recommends the opposite.' British ministers, this week, are complaining in similar terms. They hesitate to send yet more troops to Bosnia, suggesting others might do their bit - and are savaged for it. They defend a murky Malaysian deal to protect British jobs - same thing. Dammed if they do, damned if they don't?

Douglas Hurd, for one, has made it pretty clear he feels assailed by a pestiferous - what should the collective noun be - bleat of liberals? A whine? Anyway, decent, patriotic ministers, struggling hard in a harsh world to do the best for Britain are being smeared and derided by inconsistent idealists.

There is a small, a very small, quantity of truth in the ministerial lament, so let us deal with it quickly. First, the vast majority of ministers and officials are patriotic, hardworking and untainted by sleaze. Second, not everything that gets chattering London excited resonates throughout the land. I very much doubt that the Pergau dam affair will influence more than a handful of voters: and a majority, perhaps, will side with the ministers who put British jobs before administrative niceties. More of that, please, they will think.

But that sums up the case for the defence. The fact is, recent British Conservative foreign policy has not served the national interest as well, or as consistently, as its promoters pretend. For years, Britain has not maximised her diplomatic clout or used her relatively weak position in the cleverest way to promote the interests of her citizens. Put aside every moral argument, every shred of special pleading by television correspondents, and this conclusion stands. It hasn't worked.

Take the business of selling arms and arms-making equipment, to dictatorial or autocratic regimes. These are corrupt and unpredictable (Malaysia) and often dangerous too (Iraq). Their unpredictability and corruption entangle and diminish any democratic government doing business with them: inevitably, the Congressional committees and Lord Justices are called in, and will continue to be so as long as such connections are made. But the trade is also dangerous because in an unstable world, erratically policed by the United Nations, blue-helmeted Western troops might at any time find themselves confronting dictatorial regimes or factions effectively armed by their home nations. The contract that keeps his sister well- paid in Berkshire, maims the sergeant-major on a sandy plain.

Even then, one could argue that life is full of little ironies: companies will go where the contracts are. True. But once a Government intervenes to encourage the trade with loans and pay-offs, then other balancing considerations must arise. Britain has enjoyed the commercial benefits of being a punctiliously legal and open society, whose political culture is respected and whose high public standards make her a good place to trade from. Reputation is valuable: and the rising importance of trade in services makes it ever more so.

The arms trade, by contrast, is a dicey long-term bet. The end of the cold war makes it ever harder to sustain a world-class weapons industry purely on the back of domestic orders. Meanwhile new cut-price competitors from the East - the Czechs and the Chinese - are butting into export markets. It is easy to understand why the Government gave priority to this trade: it helped companies closely connected to the Government and, sometimes, to the Tory party through donations. It

is rather less obvious that it was in the long-term national interest.

There is a similar hard-nosed case to be made against the Government's Bosnian policy. For more than two grim years, British political caution over post-Yugoslavia limited the impact in Washington and Brussels of the work done by British soldiers and aid workers in the Balkans. Unease was expressed about the longer-term security of the military Atlantic alliance.

This year, however, Britain has had the great bonus of Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose, the man who brokered the ceasefire. As a result of that, and the Nato ultimatum, the alliance looked stronger again, and Britain's potential for influence had increased. These are still perilous days, but the possibility remains that the ceasefire can lead to a peace deal. Sir Michael wants more British troops to police it and the Chiefs of Staff have been waging an extraordinary political campaign on his behalf - to the surprise and irritation of the ministers involved.

High-quality British soldiers are one of the few big-number cards left in London's diplomatic hand and it is depressing that the Cabinet, partly worried by the backbenchers, is failing to seize the moment. If it continues to refuse, then the story of declining British influence here will continue.

This story is equally about the astonishing rise of French influence over the past 12 months. Since the Balladur government came into office, both the French Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, Michel Juppe, have spearheaded a determined and highly successful drive to convince Washington that Paris is now the most reliable European interlocutor. By and large, the White House and the State Department have decided that if they deal with the French, they will deliver the Germans, and that, in turn, delivers 'Europe'. British influence, by contrast, has been severely limited. Even on trade, once the Germans proved unable to deliver the French during the Gatt talks, direct Washington-Paris conversations proved crucial.

It would be wrong to be too worried about that: the turn of French foreign policy from Gaullism to cautious Atlanticism is good for Europe and for Nato. But it is undeniable that British political timidity over Bosnia, and the lukewarm attitude to the European Union, have lost this country influence at the centre of international diplomacy.

These various failures are not the failures of Foreign Office bureaucracy; they are directly Conservative Party failures. Today's arms- sale embarrassments grew out of the hubris and skewed priorities of high-noon Thatcherism, while European policy has been influenced, even driven, by the deep divisions in the parliamentary party. They were failures hatched at home which have caused Britain real harm. Swatting liberals cannot disguise the smell of decay that brings them buzzing to the issue.