Politics is usually more straightforward from the Opposition benches. The decisions are up to other people, and when things go wrong it’s easy enough to know who to blame. It’s no coincidence that the Conservative benches have been doing their best to dub Keir Starmer ‘Captain Hindsight’.
Labour has taken to pushing the Government hard on where it sees Britain’s place in the world, challenging the Government on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and for cutting the previously unassailable budget for international aid. Since Starmer took charge of the party, there has been an obvious shift in Labour’s foreign policy, reverting to a pro-NATO and Western alliance stance and dispensing of the far-left Corbynite views that ranged from fringe (unilateral nuclear disarmament) to the risible (suggesting that Russia be brought in to test the Novichok used in the Skripal poisonings in 2018). That is not to say a more mainstream foreign policy has stripped the daylight between Government and Opposition, as seen in Labour’s outspoken response to the continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the catastrophic war in Yemen.
But do these differences actually reveal a conflict in world view between the two parties i.e. that Labour wants a more ethical and interventionist role for the UK, and that the Conservatives want to focus on domestic priorities instead? Throughout the seemingly endless Brexit years, our post EU future was usually seen by both sides as needing to be international rather than insular: Remainers wanted to maintain strong ties with partners in Europe, and Brexiteers tried to make the case for a Global Britain striking trade deals and partnerships further afield.
More likely, these divergences between Government and Opposition reflect the nature of foreign policy: many institutionalists or liberals will find themselves swept up by the foreign policy establishment – the so-called Blob – and adopting realism as their philosophy. Even as Labour called for Britain to follow the American lead in suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, it has become clear that then-candidate Joe Biden had much bolder views on foreign policy than now-President Biden. As candidate, Biden called Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ state, and held Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman as culpable for the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet when a US intelligence report was released this week which confirmed this, Biden-as-President declined to punish MBS directly or to even recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship. The non-response was met with shock from human rights campaigners and virtually everyone else. But, for innumerable reasons, the US needs and wants ties with Saudi Arabia, whether as purchasers of US military technology, intelligence support in combatting Islamist militants, or regional balance against Iran.
So – would a Prime Minister Starmer practise in office what he preaches now? Perhaps, but in doing so he would often find himself out of step with the British people. The recent 2021 Annual Survey of UK Public Opinion on Foreign Policy and Global Britain from the British Foreign Policy Group found that 38% of Britons want the Government to prioritise economic and defence interests versus 19% who want to focus on democracy and human rights (30% dodged the question and said both should be prioritised). Similarly on international aid, an overwhelming majority of 72% said that foreign aid should be stopped or cut during the pandemic. This isn’t to say leaders should blindly follow public opinion, but if there is a difference in world views, the Government’s seems to be more in tune.
Should Starmer become Prime Minister he would see a great deal of pressure from institutional voices to steer a steady course on foreign policy. Maintaining the status quo will be the easy choice, and holding allies to account whilst counting on their support for a range of issues will be an uncomfortable line to walk. Starmer can do it – but will doubtless miss those comfortable Opposition benches too.