Clegg’s Surprising Strength

‘After 2010, the Liberal Democrats got steadily stronger on foreign policy, a field in which their polyglot leader was visibly comfortable’

Defence Guest Speaker UK Politics

Ironic: Lib Dem robustness in foreign policy coincided with the total collapse of their vote (photo: Liberal Democrats, via Flickr)

Don’t laugh, but the party that went into the recent election with the strongest national security platform of any of the leaders, and with the best chance of impressing the man most directly threatening our security, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, was the Liberal Democrats. This was not previously the case, for in the last four contests their credentials were much weaker than those of  Labour or the Conservatives. In 1997, Tony Blair and Robin Cook’s incipient “ethical foreign policy” made a welcome break from the “Conservative pessimism” which had led to the Bosnian disaster. In the 2001 election, post-Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Tony Blair’s standing in foreign policy was unsurpassed, and in Northern Ireland too; indeed, he enjoyed a formidable international reputation rivalled since, with less justice, only by Barack Obama. Even in 2005, although mine is a minority opinion here, Tony Blair was the best bet, having helped to get rid of Saddam Hussein and thus given Iraq a chance for progress now tragically denied to them by ISIS. By 2010, the post-Blair Labour party had fallen apart on foreign policy, and the Liberal Democrats made themselves unelectable through their opposition to the Trident independent deterrent. Then David Cameron’s Conservative party was the best bet for the security of Britain and the cause of democracy globally.

By 2015, however, Nick Clegg had wrought a considerable transformation. After 2010, the Liberal Democrats got steadily stronger on foreign policy, a field in which their polyglot leader was visibly comfortable. To be sure, his plan to reduce the number of submarines jeopardised the effectiveness of Trident, but it was still an improvement on their bald statement five years ago not to “seek a like-for-like replacement” for the existing fleet, which was widely regarded as a commitment to scrap it. They were certainly moving in the right direction, and besides there was every likelihood that once re-elected, and if confronted with continued Russian belligerence, Mr Clegg would have jettisoned this manifesto commitment as decisively as he did the one on tuition fees in the last parliament. Unlike some, he is more robust than he looks and sounds.

More importantly, the Liberal Democrats have been the strongest and most imaginative of the major parties on Russian territorial aggression. Mr Clegg stood out among Western and Central European government members in his demand for a boycott of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, until Putin withdraws from the Crimea. He was slapped down by the Prime Minister for his pains. Most importantly of all, the Liberal Democrats are now strongly opposed to a referendum on Europe. Timing is everything here: although Mr Clegg’s stance was not defensible in the long run, as the UK will need to decide where its destiny ultimately lies, it is the only possible policy in the short term until the eurozone has sorted itself out and the future shape of the Union is clear.

By contrast, the Conservative trajectory had been downwards. On the positive side of the ledger, Mr Cameron intervened decisively in Libya, preventing the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi from carrying out his threat to massacre rebels en masse in the east of the country.  He did his best to intervene constructively in Syria. He has been tougher on Russia than most Western and Eastern European leaders. He draws the right conclusion from this by standing up for Trident. Today, however, the Conservative government still steadfastly refuses to commit to the minimum NATO defence expenditure of 2 per cent agreed across the alliance. Moreover, Mr Cameron has jeopardised his foreign policy credentials in the most important sphere: Europe. By promising a referendum in 2017, he will force the peoples of the United Kingdom into a choice before they can sensibly make one (that is before the eurozone has decided on the next steps in integration). Worse still, a referendum as it stands risks breaking up the Union because the Scottish nationalists will seize on a No vote to demand a fresh referendum on independence.

Labour, however, are in the biggest mess. They oppose a referendum on Europe, and they back Trident, but in almost all other respects their grasp on national security issues seems even more tenuous than it was five years ago. The biggest and — to my mind — terminal black mark against them is their Syria policy. It was bad enough that Ed Miliband opposed intervention to punish President Assad for the use of chemical weapons, which gave the regime a new lease of life and increased the space for Islamist extremism in the absence of a viable alternative. It was much worse that he gave the Prime Minister to understand that he would support air strikes in the House of Commons, only to renege on that commitment shortly before the vote. This sent a fatal signal that Britain had lost the will to shape events. He was applauded for this stance across the party. All this marks a sad decline from the high point of Labour internationalism nearly two decades ago. Their new leader will have a mountain to climb on foreign policy.

It is a terrible irony that the new Liberal Democrat robustness in foreign policy coincided with the collapse of their vote. Just when it became possible to elect them, the public got rid of them, and destroyed Mr Clegg. Just when their voice was needed in coalition to prevent a premature referendum, they have been effectively silenced. Heaven knows who the Liberal Democrats will elect as their next leader but he or she is very unlikely to be as strong as Mr Clegg on foreign policy. Laugh? I want to cry.