Does Britain Still Have a Voice Beyond the Channel?

Does Britain Still Have a Voice Beyond the Channel?
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The United Kingdom retains a powerful hand in international institutions, with seats at the top tables of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations - but you wouldn't know it from listening to the candidates for Britain's highest office.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently decided to skip Ukraine cease-fire talks to visit Leamington Spa. The electoral calculation of the move was helpfully underscored by a senior aide who noted "there's a general election on. You wouldn't expect the prime minister to spend much time on foreign policy now." Cameron's challenger, Labour's Ed Miliband, is yet to give a major foreign policy address. How has Britain, one of the world's global powerhouses, produced an election campaign with so little to say about how we might best secure our interests and advance our values in turbulent times?

On one level, the answer is obvious: the voters' minds are elsewhere. The idea that there are no votes, only controversies, to be found in foreign policy holds sway at the highest levels of strategy development for the governing Conservatives and their Labour opposition alike. That is what lies behind the prime minister's desire to avoid defense debates, despite the traditional lead Conservatives enjoy on questions of national security. Labour likewise has skirted around questions about the purpose and capabilities of Britain's armed forces, focusing much more on what they should not do than what they should.

There is some evidence, however, that the parties have misread the public mood. Just because an individual voter doesn't want to devise their own answer to a complex policy dilemma doesn't mean they don't want their leaders to have one.

The most recent polling from think tank Chatham House reveals majority support across both general public and elite audiences for the idea that Britain should act to retain great power status. Meanwhile Britain's commitment to spending 0.7 percent of national income on overseas aid still commands majority support in the midst of spending cuts elsewhere. Even the European Union is enjoying something of a polling revival.

Britons are also swift to show support for overseas issues in myriad softer ways. On Friday hundreds of schools and businesses will raise money for Comic Relief, the development charity behind Red Nose Night, the TV telethon that raised a record £75 million in 2013, and more than half a million people donated to Unicef's appeal during the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

We are, in other words, profoundly persuadable of the links between our own lives and those of people beyond the border. That is in part because foreign policy questions are starting to feel incredibly close to home. In the last few months we've had stories of Russian planes flying around the English coast, a British taxi driver being murdered while delivering aid, and a Scottish nurse contracting Ebola. The distinctions between us and them, here and there - if they ever existed at all - are being washed away by the very thing party media and message planners hate most: events.

The chances of Britain making it through to May 7 without facing at least one unexpected international event with serious implications for our national interests are slim indeed. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband should be planning to give over at least a day between now and polling to lay out how they intend to shape world events and not just react to them. Even if they remain unpersuaded that the electorate is hungry for answers now, it is difficult to see how they could claim a later mandate for tough decisions if they don't hint at their direction of travel on ISIS, Russia, China, the Transatlantic relationship, Syria, reform of the European Union, and prospects for this year's critical summits on sustainable development and climate change. It surely can't be too much to ask that we learn, in advance of casting our votes, how our leaders intend to protect and project the power our country has worked so hard to achieve. 

Kirsty McNeill is a strategy consultant to some of the world’s leading campaigning organisations and a former Downing Street adviser. She tweets @kirstyjmcneill

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