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Foreign Policy: The Unmentioned Topic in Britain's General Election

The days when the British Empire ruled the world are long gone, and the UK is ever less important on the world stage. So why didn't politicians talk about it in the run-up to today's vote?
Photo by Anna & Michal

Britain is at the polls today following an election campaign that has seen the country turn inwards. There has been the usual talk about building a better, richer, more productive country but this has been done, for the most part, without much consideration of how this will relate to the world at large. Fiercely contested and too tight to call, there are real issues at stake and diverging philosophies to choose from, but in the last week particularly, wild promises and fear mongering have sidelined the bigger picture.

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The prospect of an overwhelming victory north of the border for the Scottish National Party (SNP) — a party which campaigns for the independence of Scotland and is now predicted to take dozens of seats from the Labour Party, which would likely thwart its hopes of winning the election — has resulted in the stirring up of nationalism. In England, voters have been told to resent the Scots, who want to break away on their own; in Scotland, voters are told to cast off the yoke of the English political establishment.

The UK's governing Conservative party has spearheaded the English nationalistic calls, hoping that a country sufficiently appalled and afraid by the thought of a coalition between Labour and the SNP — a possibility if Labour fails to win enough seats to govern the country on its own — will back the devil it knows over the tartan-wearing devil it doesn't. Much of the press has followed suit.

Related: Devolution in the UK: Will Thursday's Election Lead to the Break Up of Britain?

This obscuring of the issues is unfortunate because lurking behind these battles is the spectre — real or imagined — of Britain's decline in the world as a whole. This has been a concern in the political and intellectual life of the isles since the highpoint of the British Empire, when the nation's dominant position in the world was seen as being one that might slip at any moment.

Now that the empire really is gone and the UK is no longer a financial or military superpower, the question of decline has taken on a melancholic air. Nostalgia grips the British imagination. On the right, that nostalgia is for a time when Britannia ruled the waves; on the left, it is for a time before former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a time when Britain was truly a social democracy.

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Decline, then, can mean different things. It can be a weakening of power on the world stage, and it can be a weakening of the social contract at home. In both senses, Britain can be said to be in decline. The Labour Party under current leader Ed Miliband has focused on addressing inequality domestically, while the Conservatives have insisted their economic credentials are the only ones to be trusted. Before they dived head first into the murky waters of English nationalism and domestic electioneering, their ambitions were broader than that.

When David Cameron came to power he seemed obsessed by the idea of the global rat race and of Britain competing on the world stage. Faced with the rapid, ongoing expansion of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), among others, the prime minister told the 2012 Conservative Party conference: "Because the truth is this. We are in a global race today. And that means an hour of reckoning for countries like ours… Sink or swim. Do or decline. Though the challenge before us is daunting, I have confidence in our country. Why? Because Britain can deliver. We can do big things."

The stark dichotomy Cameron set out was interesting. You either drown or you swim a magnificent crawl admired by all around you. You "do," or you "decline," and "doing" means a wholesale embracing of neo-liberal capitalism and, as it turned out, interventionist foreign policy. Like Tony Blair, Cameron was still in love with the idea of a globe bestriding, quasi-imperial Britain and it was this that fired British military involvement in Libya as well as his desire (wrecked by Labour) to take action in Syria. No questions about foreign policy were asked during the leaders' debate but when Miliband spoke about what his party's foreign policy was, he was clear that it included learning from the mistakes of the Blair government's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the failure of the Cameron's government to consider what would happen to Libya once Britain's military involvement came to an end.

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A year after Cameron's "do or decline" speech Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's spokesman, reportedly called Britain "just a small island" that no-one paid attention to. Cameron responded with a speech that aped Hugh Grant's prime minister character in Love Actually, in which he presented Britain as the plucky over-achiever, the source of all that is right, good, and fun in the world as well as a heavy-hitter on the international stage. This nostalgic address was meant to remind everyone of how admirable Britain was while also assuring them that it still counts. A couple of years on, it is worth noting that Britain has not played any part in the ongoing negotiations on the future of Ukraine. Under pressure from the right wing of his party, Cameron has drawn Britain away from Europe.

But the world at large doesn't just matter when it comes to international politics. The workings of the global economy — in harness with the policies of successive governments — have left a number of communities shorn of employment and identity. This kind of decline has meant that the UK is a less equal place than it was at the last election. London, one of the world's financial centers, exists in another dimension to the rest of the country. The anger or disillusionment people feel at the political and financial establishment is in a sense a feeling about a country they feel is in decline except for those who can afford to live in a market society.

Miliband says a Labour government would make Britain a more equal country and would seek to regulate and tax multi-national companies to a greater extent but also accepts that in a world in which capital is mobile, much of this kind of action may have to take place at an international level. It may well be a pipedream, but if a Labour government did end up focusing on reversing this kind of decline, it could move Britain onto a more Scandinavian-style, socially democratic footing and be a way for the country to finally find a secure, post-imperial identity.

With an inconclusive election result possible, though, the myopic domestic sniping may drag on and on. At some point, Britain's politicians need to remember that there's a world out there.

Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow

Photo via Flickr