The upcoming British general election is poised to be the United Kingdom’s most interesting campaign in decades. That may be a surprising statement considering that the 2010 election resulted in an unprecedented coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. However, the trends that shaped that election – continuing political devolution, resurgent nationalism, debt concerns, and the breakdown of the two-party system – have only intensified, making May 7th’s outcome the object of intense speculation. As that day approaches, party leaders are focusing their talking points on domestic issues. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is defending his coalition’s progress on debt reduction while Labour’s Ed Miliband is calling for greater electoral, constitutional, and economic reform. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party’s new leader, is working to ensure Scottish concerns play a major role in shaping London’s next government. What is missing from the current debates, though, is a substantive discussion of Britain’s role in international affairs.
Even though foreign policy is not at the forefront of this election, the election’s outcome will influence Britain’s diplomatic outlook. If the Conservatives can form a new coalition with Mr. Cameron as Prime Minister, Britain will likely retreat from a position of strong international influence. There are two reasons for this. First, in order to secure enough votes for a Conservative-led coalition, Mr. Cameron’s party must appeal to right-wing Britons who are beginning to throw their support behind the United Kingdom Independence Party, commonly known as UKIP. This far-right, nationalist party fears that increased immigration reduces British identity and sovereignty, and is therefore staunchly opposed to European Union membership. UKIP’s positions have gained influence since the 2008 financial crisis and renewed concerns over Islamic extremism. In order to appease these kinds of views, Mr. Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017 if he remains prime minister. If this referendum is successful, Britain could conceivably withdraw entirely from the EU, thereby drastically shrinking it role in the continent’s diplomatic concerns.
The second reason a Conservative coalition would reduce Britain’s international role relates to fiscal policy. Mr. Cameron’s party ideologically supports austerity measures as a tool to reduce the British government’s debt. During his first term, Mr. Cameron’s administration implemented soft austerity policies to test their effectiveness. So far, Mr. Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has been relatively pleased with the results. However, if Mr. Cameron wants to continue using austerity as tool for economic recovery, analysts suggest that Mr. Osborne must implement more stringent budget cuts in a second term. It will not be politically feasible to make pension or healthcare cuts, so the austerity burden may fall on defense and security spending. Britain currently spends 2% of its GDP on defense. This amount complies with NATO’s guidelines and is the highest in the EU. If this percentage is lowered, though, Britain will surely have to reduce some of its diplomatic and military activities.
If a more left-wing coalition government is formed, Britain’s international role is likely to, at least temporarily, remain in the status quo. Mr. Miliband does not support the 2017 EU referendum, but is still cautious about ceding additional authority to Brussels. Tony Blair, Labour’s former prime minister, recently criticized British isolationism during a party speech. “A decision to exit Europe would say a lot about us and none of it good: that, with all the challenges of the world crowding in upon us, demanding strong and clear leadership, instead of saying ‘here’s how the world should go,’ we say ‘count us out,’” Blair said.
Additionally, SNP leader Sturgeon has already claimed that if her party is in position to be a minority partner in a coalition, she will side with Mr. Miliband. Since SNP wants Scotland to negotiate with the EU as an independent entity, she is not in favor of the 2017 UK-wide referendum. Due to these constraints, if Labour manages to convince the British public to buy into their domestic agenda, the United Kingdom will continue to explore its tenuous role with the EU and play a role in shaping European diplomacy.
All these possibilities essentially highlight how all the domestic political dialogues surrounding the British general election could affect the international landscape. May 7th’s results could fundamentally alter the British-EU relationship – and if conservatives win and enact further austerity measures, British defense spending could be slashed. Any reduction in British defense spending will surely alter the dynamics of transatlantic relations between the United States and the European Union, a potentially troubling possibility given the slew of foreign crises that both entities are confronting around the world. That is why the White House has made it clear that during this time of renewed security concerns, it hopes that Britain will continue to fund its military at current levels and stay in the European Union. In any case, when the British electorate makes their decision based on domestic issues come May, they must keep in mind the vast international implications of their vote.
- Andrew Spohn