Cynics have long suspected that Britain’s foreign policy is as independent as its nuclear deterrent. Cynics have a point. Perhaps, as some suggest, it’s time to concede the game’s a bogey and cease even pretending to pretend this remains a country of at least some modest importance and influence. Except, if we choose to, we do retain some influence, even some importance.
Nevertheless, we certainly do not have an Iraq policy at present. Nor do we really have an ISIS policy. The Foreign Secretary is long on what we’re not doing and very short on what we are. Of course this reflects past misadventures. Not just those pertaining to Iraq but others too, including last year’s parliamentary determination to avoid having a Syria policy too.
So, yes, Prudence runs foreign policy these days. Even when she merely delays a reckoning. But you can take these things too far. Consider this snippet from the Times’ excellent new Red Box daily briefing (free, sign up here):
The word in senior diplomatic circles is that the PM would personally favour deeper involvement but has no intention of placing himself this year on the wrong side of public, and therefore parliamentary, opinion. His defeat over Syria when he recalled the Commons last year has left its scars.
Informed sources suggest that he sees no advantage on this occasion in trying to lead public opinion.
You might think, even nine months from a general election, that foreign policy might be informed by some contemplation of the national interest and that this could be reckoned more important than short-term party political advantage but you would, of course, be mistaken. And, perhaps, depressed.
Even so this is dismal. If this report is accurate it means the Prime Minister thinks there is a right thing to do but that he is not prepared to take any action that might allow him to do the things he thinks are the right thing to do. There’s no advantage in doing so, you see. And so, instead, we will do things the Prime Minister thinks are not the right thing to do. And this will be considered good politics or even some kind of small victory.
Sheesh. Has it come to this? Apparently so. A Prime Minister who will not make his own case – especially on a matter as significant as this – is a Prime Minister in retreat. Worse, he emasculates himself. What is David Cameron for if not, in theory, advancing his interpretation of Britain’s national interest?
It would be one thing to avoid greater involvement in the struggle against ISIS after a proper argument over the need to do so; quite another to avoid having the argument in the first place. It suggests a shrivelled Prime Minister at the head of a shrivelled government leading a shrivelled country. Which, in this instance, is a choice too.
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