One expects there to be winners in elections. Maybe not in Thursday’s general election in the United Kingdom, however. The latest polls give the incumbent Conservatives a 9-percentage-point lead, though recent ballots have shown British polling to be reliably unreliable and we could end up with a hung Parliament followed by months of negotiations over what form of ruling coalition can be composed.
As a Brit living abroad, with my postal vote already sent last week, there hasn’t been much to whet one’s appetite watching the campaigns crawl to a close. For many voters, it is one of those lesser-evil elections, and I suspect a good number won’t make up their minds until they step into the ballot booths.
Their main two options are a Conservative Party obsessed with ending the Brexit saga (however foolishly that is achieved) and venerating Boris Johnson’s life-long desire for power, and a Labour Party under the far-left Jeremy Corbyn who has promised radical new state spending and punitive raids on the coffers of the rich, but who is also fighting a rearguard against cries about his party’s alleged anti-Semitism and inexperience. As one commentator put it, the choice offered up is between getting Brexit done and doing in the bourgeoisie.
The world might have tired of British politics and of watching the unremitting Brexit negotiations with a cocktail of confusion, frustration and self-anguish, like children observing their parents go through a prolonged, will-they-won’t-they divorce. But the UK election really does matter to the rest of the world, not least in Asia. Britain is one the top 20 trading partners of China, the 15th-largest of Japan, and one of the largest of the Southeast Asian states.
The world might have tired of British politics and of watching the unremitting Brexit negotiations with a cocktail of confusion, frustration and self-anguish, like children observing their parents go through a prolonged, will-they-won’t-they divorce. But the UK election really does matter to the rest of the world, not least in Asia
Brexit certainly matters. This year, the German Development Institute, a think-tank, estimated that a “no-deal” Brexit – which is still on the table – could throw 1.7 million people living in developing nations back into “extreme poverty,” with Cambodia being one of the most affected. Even leaving the European Union with a deal will have its consequences. Those countries with free-trade agreements with the EU, like Japan, Singapore and possibly Vietnam this year, will have to deal with new tariffs and export regulations once the UK quits the Union.
Geopolitically, Britain matters too. It has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It still retains a military base in Brunei, a former colony, and plans to build another in Southeast Asia. Its vessels take part in “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. As part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – along with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – it plays a major role in anti-terrorism operations in Asia.
Theoretically, London could take a much stronger stance on what happens in Hong Kong. It could also try to take a more hands-on approach to the genocide in Myanmar, another former colony. London has spoken of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. And an enterprising foreign secretary could try to find a way of the UK joining new Asian institutions, like the Indo-Pacific Quad, or even to balance China-led ones.
So what sort of foreign policy can we expect from the two main parties?
The Labour manifesto’s chapter on foreign affairs is titled “New Internationalism,” odd considering it spends most of its pages obsessing over Britain’s past actions in the world, most of which took place when its 70-year-old leader Corbyn was a mere babe. So expect a good deal of hand-wringing and virtue signaling, such as the party’s promise to launch an “audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule.” (What exactly will this audit uncover that isn’t already taught to the average primary-school student?)
And, rather atavistically, when foreign-policy examples are given they focus on events in the Middle East and Africa. Interestingly enough, the rise of China and how the West is to respond to its new superpower status (which is the most important global development of our lifetime) isn’t mentioned at all. China, in fact, only receives one mention, and that’s about its treatment of the Uighurs. India isn’t mentioned at all. Neither is Japan or South Korea. Myanmar is mentioned once but only to say Labour would do more internationally to punish “the use of rape as a weapon of war against the Rohingya community” – so nothing about the genocide.
If the manifesto is to be believed, a Labour government would see the UK pressing home a new foreign policy based on climate action, but little else. Do not expect a more confident UK on the world stage (the opposite, in fact) or one that has an underlying idea of the goals it wants to achieve if Labour wins. This isn’t at all surprising, though. After the days of Tony Blair, no Labour leader has offered up a compelling or, indeed, insightful idea about foreign policy. Instead, it is now a party of domestic issues.
What about the Tories? The Conservative manifesto certainly promises a bolder UK in international affairs, with its chapter titled “We Will Strengthen Britain in the World.” Yet it also provides very few real-life examples of how the world might be different under yet another Tory government and is equally focused on environmental standards, though it does offer greater promises of world trade post-Brexit and Britain’s military capabilities.
But much of this is, no doubt, bluster. Boris Johnson, who would be returned as prime minister if the Conservatives win, was a woeful foreign secretary and his two years in the job were known for silly gaffes and grave mistakes – wrongly calling a British detainee in Iran a journalist, thereby prolonging her imprisonment, for instance. And then there are the Tories’ past promises. Johnson’s vow in 2016 to take Britain “back East of Suez” – so closer to Asia – never happened. Former Tory prime minister Theresa May’s pledge to build a “truly Global Britain” didn’t take off either.
The unaspiring foreign-policy ideas of the two main parties’ manifestos – and the lack of any real discussion on Britain’s place in the world during the campaign – reveal a fundamental problem in London. In the 1980s, it was the Conservatives who were the party that actually had an idea about Britain’s role in foreign affairs. This was mainly trans-Atlantic, but it also involved in the more nitty-gritty of international affairs. By the late 1990s, foreign policy was monopolized by Labour, with Tony Blair almost personifying the new Liberal Interventionism ideals, which worked well in Yugoslavia but not so much in the Middle East.
Today with Brexit now fatiguing like a dumbbell held at arm’s length and a Europe that is struggling once again to find its place in the world, it is small wonder that neither of the two main British parties can articulate a confident and believable foreign policy. So much for a “Global Britain”; perhaps an “Immobile Britain” is more accurate.