UK election 2019: the parties’ competing visions for Britain’s place in the world

Unusually for a UK election campaign, a key issue of foreign policy is central to the debate. Although previous elections have followed major foreign policy controversies – in 1959 following the Suez invasion, 1983 after the Falklands war and 2005 after the Iraq war – the 2017 and 2019 campaigns have been marked by their focus on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union (EU). Brexit is the top concern for British voters.

The UK’s relationship with the EU will determine the future direction of the UK’s foreign, security, development and international trade relationships, as my own research has explored. Since 1973, the UK has largely pursued its foreign economic policy with the EU. It has also increasingly coordinated its foreign and defence policy with the EU’s member states and, in recent years, become enmeshed in initiatives to build an EU security and defence capability.

The Conservative Party and Brexit Party, who are committed to leaving the EU, offer the prospect of the most significant change in the UK’s place in the world. The Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, by campaigning to remain within the EU, appear to offer continuity – not withstanding the SNP’s commitment to seeking independence for Scotland.

The Labour Party’s policy, which offers further renegotiation on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and a second referendum, presents a less clear cut alternative foreign policy future.

Foreign policy visions

The parties’ manifestos grapple with the consequences of their different positions on Brexit for the UK’s foreign, security and defence policies and present different levels of detail of their vision for Britain’s place in the world.

The Conservative manifesto states: “Getting Brexit done will allow us to do more on the international stage.” There is no manifesto reference to “Global Britain”, a much-derided term used by the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson to characterise a post-Brexit UK foreign policy.

A Brexit supporter outside parliament. Neil Hall/EPA

The Conservative manifesto’s foreign policy content is rather stronger on rhetoric than specific commitments. There will be moves to “bolster” alliances and international institutions and “reinvigorate relationships with Europe and seek to strengthen old and new partnerships across the world”. The party also pledges to “expand our influence and protect our values” through cultural institutions, such as the BBC and British Council.

In contrast to the Conservatives, the Labour manifesto is expansive on promises for what it calls a “new internationalism”, putting “human rights, international law and tackling climate change” as core international priorities. Labour says it will use the UK’s influence to end the “bomb first, talk later” approach to security.

Unusually for the foreign policy section of a party manifesto, there are specific commitments for the first year of government. These include the introduction of a War Powers Act to require parliamentary approach for military action – a policy commitment shared with the Liberal Democrats. Labour also commits to an “audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy” with the purpose of understanding “our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule” and to invest an additional £400 million in diplomatic capacity.

Labour also has a detailed shopping list of commitments for British diplomacy. These include the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state, which is also in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Labour also says it will change British policy on the Chagos Islands and Western Sahara, apologise for the 1919 Amritsar massacre, as well as launch an inquiry into the UK’s “complicity in rendition and torture”.

Where there is significant common ground between the UK’s three main parties is on climate change diplomacy and development policy, with all promising to maintain the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, except the Brexit Party which wants to halve the aid budget. Yet, considering the UK’s membership of the EU has substantially shaped both its development and environmental policy, there is little reflection in the party manifestos on the consequences of the UK’s departure from the EU on these issues.

Defence and Trident

Despite Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s record of opposition to NATO and Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent, there is no substantive difference between the three main party’s manifestos on these defence issues. The exceptions are the SNP and the Green Party, both of which are committed to abolishing Trident.

All the other parties commit to renew Trident (the Liberal Democrats want to reduce the number of submarines and move away from constant patrolling) and to spend 2% or more of GDP on defence. Labour and the Conservatives stress they will improve opportunities for UK veterans.

HMS Vigilant: the Trident nuclear deterrent on the Clyde. James Glossop/The Times/PA Archive

As on foreign policy, Labour’s manifesto is more detailed on security and defence spending commitments than that of the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. Labour commits to increase funding for UN peacekeeping and compensate veterans of British nuclear weapons testing programmes. It also promises to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia (also a commitment of the Liberal Democrats) and Israel and to review the UK’s arms export regime.

All three of the UK’s main political parties are committing to more, but different, foreign policy in their manifestos: the Liberal Democrats plan to “renew international liberalism”; Labour seeks a “new internationalism”; and the Conservatives aim to “strengthen Britain in the world”. Most of the electorate is, however, more likely to notice their different positions on Brexit.