Could a foreign policy dispute bring down Britain’s coalition? It seems unlikely. International affairs played almost no role in the election. The Afghanistan campaign limps on without any groundswell of opinion for withdrawal. The EU is too distracted by the euro crisis to dream up any new initiatives. In none of the world’s hotspots—Iran, North Korea, Gaza—does Britain have a loud voice. And yet. In no policy area do the instincts of the two coalition parties diverge more than foreign policy (see our portrait of the Liberal Democrats p31). The Lib Dems represent the voice of the old liberal establishment: pro-EU (Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne are the truest believing Europeans ever to grace a British cabinet table), internationalist, hostile to the use of force—they would have been fiercely opposed to the Suez invasion, a defining moment for postwar British liberalism. David Cameron’s Tories, by contrast, are suspicious of the EU, and still the party of monarchy, armed forces and flag. Moreover, they supported all of Tony Blair’s wars, albeit with subsequent reservations about our uncritical friendship with the US over Iraq. It is not hard to imagine some incident—an attack on Iran perhaps?—turning such divergent instincts into full-scale coalition combat.
There may, however, be one thing that the two parties can agree on: after a late flourish of power projection from the Falklands in 1982 to Iraq in 2003, Britain is going to have to get used to being weaker and less ambitious in its international dealings. The combination of economic constraint and the perceived failure of Blairite interventionism will make global activism a low priority for the coalition. And David Cameron—has there ever been a British prime minister with less experience of abroad?—seems well suited to speak for a smaller, quieter country. Our timely interview (p36) with David Richards, head of the army, may reflect a bit too much nostalgia for the global-policeman role for the taste of his new political masters. But even Richards talks about Britain engaging in no solo actions larger than the Sierra Leone intervention in 1999 (5,000 troops at its height). And if he is setting out his stall for the coming vacancy for chief of defence staff, the top job in the military, the Tories will be pleased to hear his robust, almost Thatcherite, views about Britain’s defence sector.
In theory, the post-imperial Tories and the post-national Lib Dems could combine to tell a new, more modest coalition story about Britain in the world. It might require the Tories to accept a bigger role for European security alliances than they would like and the Lib Dems to meet them halfway on Trident. Still, don’t rule out a foreign policy punch up bringing down the coalition.