If we were to take a straw pool of Geographical readers, I suspect we would find that very few would be voters who read party manifestos. At this point you might be remonstrating with me and demanding that I retract that accusation but I would be pleasantly surprised to hear otherwise.
From the sample we have for the 2015 election, one thing that all the parties have had to address is Trident. Britain’s fleet of four nuclear submarines armed with the Trident missile system is coming to the end of its working life. To be operational in the late 2020s, a decision needs to be taken now about renewal. In a nutshell, the SNP is adamant that the fleet should not be renewed and is an expensive luxury, borne out of Cold War geopolitical legacies when we thought the Soviets might be planning to attack the UK. This is a view shared by the Green Party and Plaid Cymru.
The Conservatives and UKIP are the most supportive of renewal and the Labour and Liberal Democrats, sensing the historic unease of their members regarding nuclear weapons, propose either a limited renewal and/or minimum credibility. None of the main UK political parties is willing to commit itself to ending Trident per se; presumably for fearing of alarming the US, losing standing in the world and leaving oneself open to accusations that the UK might be under-defended in the wake of a resurgent Russia post-Ukraine crisis (or some combination of the three).
“None of the main political parties address what the UK stands for in the world and how it can make its presence felt in an era of limited resources and declining defence spending”
Beyond that, we have an assortment of claims addressing geopolitics issues du jour ranging from Russia/Ukraine, ISIS and Syria, Iran, Israel/Palestine, and the role China and international institutions might play in cementing UK interests. The Conservative Party, unsurprisingly perhaps, emphasises trade and traditional security matters with various defence commitments. It is striking to see the figure of 82,000 as the size of the regular army, which compares to around 140,000 in 1990, and the commitment not to reduce any further presumably for the next parliamentary period (2015 to 2020).
Labour follows the Conservatives in terms of global geopolitical visions but I think can claim reasonably to make a more public commitment to promote women’s rights, to qualify support for international military interventions (Labour is less assertive than the Conservatives about the territorial integrity of Ukraine, for example), and to encourage global diplomacy in general. The Liberal Democrats appear, of all the three main UK political parties, the most circumspect on defence and security, and couch their commitments in terms of review, assessment and proportionality with explicit interest in European co-operation.
Of the smaller parties, the Green Party makes climate change its number one issue and reasonably in my opinion makes the point that an agreement in Paris in December 2015 on this issue should be a priority for any new government. UKIP, along with the Conservatives, commits itself to protecting the wishes of the Falkland Islanders and a larger defence budget. The SNP is explicit in teasing out the need to distinguish the interests of Scotland from the rest of the UK and argues that a ‘northern regional dimension’ should be developed. Plaid Cymru, like its Scottish counterpart, is also opposed to nuclear weapons in Welsh territory and is as eager as the SNP to ensure that any economic advantage from UK defence activity is shared throughout the UK. While the Welsh and Scottish national parties may find Trident distasteful, they don’t want to be excluded from the multiplier effects of defence and security related employment.
What’s missing from this list of priorities and policy goals? For me the party manifestos are notable for a glaring absence which is a lack of explicit importance accorded to geopolitical factors and issues (even if some parties are more forthcoming coming on emotive subjects such as Trident and Russia/Ukraine); they tend to be tucked away towards the back of the documents. One does not come away with the sense that the political parties think there are many votes to be had in these areas. The main parties all want the UK to play a major role in the world but don’t outline how to achieve this, especially when, as political conservatives would argue, the Foreign Office is a government department reduced in role and function, and where considerable monies have been channeled into the DFID budget for ‘development’ and not ‘foreign policy and diplomacy’.
“The main parties all want the UK to play a major role in the world but don’t outline how to achieve this, especially when the Foreign Office has been reduced in role and function”
None of the main political parties address what the UK stands for in the world and how can it make its presence felt in an era of limited resources and declining defence spending. Should we be talking more explicitly about the possible ramifications of a UK exit from the EU and weakening relations with the United States? What role has the UK actually played in crises such as Ukraine (it had no role in the Minsk negotiations), and long-standing disputes such as Israel/Palestine? Is the received wisdom regarding the UK remaining a close and intimate ally of the United States under threat as the two countries diverge over relations with China (the UK joined the new Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank against US wishes) and UK defence spending continues to decline again against US/NATO wishes?
We used to say that the UK ‘punched above its weight’ on the international stage but my sense from reading the 2015 manifestos is that we have lost an appetite for a strategic vision for what the UK should be doing in the world. Exhausted perhaps by the war on terror and the costs involved, combined with austerity politics, there is precious little to nourish the geopolitical aficionado. What would a modern-day Dean Acheson (former Secretary of State under President Truman) say? The UK has lost its sense of purpose and not yet found a new role in the world.