Conservative Party Conference: Britain's world view is narrowing

The European debate is increasingly the focus of British foreign policy

October 05, 2015
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond addresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond addresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

You might think that one upside of living in an increasingly dangerous world, marred by the machinations of Vladimir Putin, the madness of Islamic State (IS) and countless other threats, would be that it would at least make for some exciting political speeches. You'd be wrong. The first day of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, titled "Britain's place in the world," saw muted turns from Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. 

There was much talk from both about Britain standing tall and taking its rightful place on the global stage, but little that was really new. Hammond joined the Prime Minister in criticising Vladimir Putin for his recent move into Syria and his support for President Assad. "Assad, with his barrel bombs and his chemical weapons and his wholesale slaughter of civilians is the recruiting sergeant for ISIL," he said. Hammond later confidently told the BBC "there is a beginning of consensus in parliament" in favour of expanding British air strikes into Syria, but he stopped short of giving any specifics about a possible Commons vote on the issue. His biggest burst of applause came on much more populist turf, when he cried "'never, ever' to a European army."

Meanwhile, Fallon's speech focused almost entirely on Britain and the state of her armed forces, rather than what she might do with them. He began not in 2015 but in 1940, when "‘The Few’ went up to defend our skies" in the Battle of Britain. He'd even invited two veterans of the conflict, Tony Pickering and Ken Wilkinson, to conference. When he announced their presence he won his only standing ovation. He touched on Assad and IS, and Britain's role in training Iraqi soldiers, as well as peacekeeping work in Africa and Navy deployments in the Mediterranean. But these felt like asides compared to the main stories; expanding government aid for British troops and their families to buy their own homes, and deals to save the families of overseas forces money on their phone contracts. Much of his appearance was taken up with a techie rundown of how he'd be spending his 2 per cent of GDP budget.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove spoke at the end of the day—an odd billing given that the part of his brief which most affects Britain's international standing was conspicuous by its absence. Government proposals to reform the Human Rights Act weren't mentioned. Former attorney general Dominic Grieve, a prominent critic of the government's plans, later bemoaned the "reputational" costs for Britain globally of weakening our stance on human rights. He also claimed that the plans were downgraded in the party's manifesto because private polling before the election found that only 16 per cent of voters considered it an important issue. 

It fell to Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, to provide the most detailed analysis of global politics. She made a passionate case for the domestic benefits of foreign aid: "When we're supporting refugees in their home region or creating jobs, this government is tackling the root causes of migration. When we're fighting Ebola, the UK is stopping the spread of the disease to our shores," she said. 

But with Labour in disarray, particularly over their foreign and defence policy, the government is able to score easy wins in geopolitics by doing anything at all, while attacking the opposition as a "threat to security." On Europe, the profound split in the party and the upcoming referendum mean nobody can afford to get lazy. Cameron's feet are held to the fire by his Eurosceptic backbenchers, while pro-European Tories were on fighting form at a packed evening rally last night. But the wider world beyond Brussels feels, as it did at the election, somewhat peripheral.