Escaping “Little Britain”

Prospect talks to William Hague, the foreign secretary
April 24, 2013

William Hague, the foreign secretary, speaks to Prospect'seditor Bronwen Maddox © Sophia Schorr-Kon

The most striking point of William Hague’s hour-long discussion with Prospect was his declaration that “a crucial period” in trying to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear programme will come after the presidential election, set for 14th June. “If, after that, there are further negotiations, and again there is no reasonable progress made, then many countries will conclude that no progress is ever going to be made,” he said.

Speaking after the failure of talks in Kazakhstan, and the remarks by John Kerry, US secretary of state, that “talks cannot go on forever,” the foreign secretary added: “I think then the pace of this crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme is going to pick up” and that “the second half of this year… is becoming a crucial time.”

Those remarks put new emphasis on setting a deadline for Tehran. And the leading role that Britain is taking (as it did under the Blair and Brown governments), in orchestrating sanctions and pushing for more rapid talks is a first answer to the awkward questions that now loom over foreign policy. Are we now “Little Britain,” with a role in the world shrunken by the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, by cuts in the armed forces, collapsing banks and recession? Does UK foreign policy now amount to little more than an exhortation to the US to do something?

With the exception of the European Union—where Hague, like David Cameron, could be accused of wishful thinking—he makes a good case that a clearer role for Britain is now emerging, after the diffidence that followed a decade of many setbacks. And after campaigning with Angelina Jolie in the Congo against sexual violence in war, yielding him a rare presence on showbiz websites, he may have found a basis for the “values-based” foreign policy which he has championed but which tripped up more than one of his predecessors. On Syria, which he said “is heading for the worst humanitarian catastrophe so far in the 21st century,” Britain has said there “is a strong case” for lifting the EU embargo on selling arms to the opposition, which expires at the end of May. On Israel, he warned that the “two-state solution” [of a separate nation for Palestinians] was “only just alive,” partly because of the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. “In the long term, Israel’s future without [a deal] is bleaker,” and its “long term strategic security… more difficult,” he said.

In Israel, clearly, the outcome depends above all on the US; Hague was encouraged, he said, by the effort that President Barack Obama and Kerry were making to get a deal—“and there won’t be another opportunity after this administration.” But the EU voice is strengthening, led by the UK and France; last year, Hague said that if there were not a reversal of Israel’s announcement of sensitive settlement construction then the EU would want to consider what tougher steps it might take—code for discussion of sanctions—although he notes now that the Israeli government has not acted on the announcement (and so, nor has the EU). On Iran, Syria and Israel, contrary to popular impression, Britain has acted particularly closely with France (Hague called his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, immediately after Israel’s announcement of new construction last year). That alliance on security policy, even if concealed by noisier disputes over the EU, is now shaping a British voice distinct from the US. On North Korea, again, this is clearly a dispute for others to take the lead in resolving—China and the US, above all. However, Hague, saying that the regime at least claimed to have the capability to hit all of the US with its missiles—and therefore Britain—argued that this showed why it was important to keep the Trident nuclear deterrent, although many question its relevance to this particular threat (see p18).

The weakest flank of his—and the government’s—foreign policy is Europe. The pledge to hold an “in or out of the EU” referendum by 2017, if re-elected, hangs on a belief that the ministers can offer voters new terms for the relationship with the EU. But this depends on Germany’s willingness to do so, and the relationship with Berlin is one that this government has repeatedly misunderstood. The other weak point, more painfully, is the lasting value of Britain’s efforts in Afghanistan, which has cost 441 military lives. Hague argues that Britain has helped deal a heavy blow to al Qaeda there, “the original reason for going to Afghanistan.” Britain’s “Sandhurst in the sands” has helped train Afghan forces, and when Nato forces leave at the end of 2014, he said, they will have left behind “a viable state.” The qualifications to this picture are obvious, and he made many of them in talking to Prospect. Challenged on the role of women, he acknowledged that while “we constantly remind the Afghan government of their responsibilities… [on] women’s rights” and they “do say all the things we would want them to say,” cultural attitudes are entrenched.

Afghanistan has helped shape the model Britain is following in Mali and Somalia, he said, where “we promote legitimate government” and “help to finance and train the forces who do the work on the ground.” While “it would be a brave foreign secretary who said we had come to the end of deploying our army,” he added, “I think that increasingly that will be the model in dealing with failed or near failing states.”

And the foreign aid budget, in this vision? As cuts bite, the “ring-fence” around the £10bn-odd budget has come under attack. Hague repeated the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid; pressed on whether some could be diverted to quasi-military use, he said Britain would stick by international definitions of aid. Personally, he said, he would also keep campaigning against sexual violence—with Angelina Jolie again, too—and intended to make it a theme of this year.

As Robin Cook found, any foreign secretary who puts “values” high on his or her agenda is open to challenge when that aim inevitably conflicts at times with those of security or commerce. Challenged on the leading role of London-based bankers and lawyers in facilitating corporate tax avoidance, (see Paul Collier, Prospect cover story, April), he said that Britain would call on the G8 to rally together—although many argue that Britain has some room here to act alone.

All the same, many recent foreign secretaries have been at their best when pursuing the causes they most care about. It is a job that can show off its occupant to his or her best, not through the grandeur of summits or the brinkmanship with Iranian clerics, but through a kind of shirtsleeves humanitarianism. As Jack Straw said, in a Kandahar baby clinic, “this brings out the VSO [Voluntary Service Overseas] in me”; David Miliband was energised and relaxed when diving into a pack of students in Bucharest to ask about their ambitions. And Hague in the Congo is right to argue that the effects of rape in war are not just on individuals, but on families and communities, infusing them with the desire for revenge and sowing the seeds of future conflict.

No doubt, Britain has less clout, of a kind, than before Iraq, both from defence cuts and a deep public reluctance to go to war again. It has less in Europe than it did. But out of Hague’s answers on Iran, Syria and Israel, and on the export of British values more widely, a plausible account emerges of where the strength of Britain’s foreign policy will lie.