At least since 1997, non-Brits need only have made a cursory overview of Britain’s elections. Why delve into the niceties of a two-horse race contested by the thoroughbred parties of the Conservatives and Labour when there were limited differences not least on international issues?
Both parties have maintained close links to Washington and despite an increasingly Eurosceptic climate, there was a limited risk to Britain’s membership of the EU. Back in 2003, Britain engaged in a war on Iraq with the support of both the main parties. Both have pushed for strong ties with Israel and neither leadership pushed for any serious changes with major Middle East powers.
And indeed if you read the manifestos the major parties, listen to the leaders’ debates and follow the media’s coverage, you would believe that international affairs matter not. Such issues certainly still do not figure high on voters’ concerns and the politicians know it. The leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband, only visited eight countries in the last five years, only Israel in the Middle East.
But there are significant changes not least exposed by the increasing success of the smaller parties. Such parties are more than having their say as evidenced by a seven-strong leaders’ debate on 2 April. Last time there were just three.
Air of anti-politics
What has brought this about? There is an air of anti-politics of anti-Westminster. Firstly, despite the failure to win a referendum on Scottish independence last September, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is, polls predict, about to run riot across Scotland, moving from 6 seats to 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats seats, hitting Labour hard.
The SNP may well have a deciding say in who forms the next government. What price will its leadership demand? The end of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is one possibility but ultimately the SNP will do anything to push towards independence.
A battle for British identity is in full swing. Is it part of Europe and should it be one country?
Secondly, Britain has a serious far right challenge. Most EU countries have seen the right wing rise not least on a tide of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fervor. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is threatening the Westminster political map. In essence it is a blame EU, blame immigrants movement that has successfully targeted many in Britain who feel alienated by the political classes. Hitherto it has received only large protest votes in the European elections but with two recent by-election victories it is threatening both Conservative and Labour seats.
What might this mean? Firstly a country that had prided itself on a first past the post voting system that did not deliver weak coalition governments is almost certainly going to face another five years. Secondly, as the world faces major strategic challenges, Britain may well spend the next five years inwardly navel gazing, firstly about the possible break-up of the United Kingdom and secondly about whether it stays in the EU. If the Conservatives win, they are committed to a referendum before the end of 2017 on whether Britain remains in the EU. These two issues alone could overwhelm British politics in the years to come.
‘Ugly trend of Islamophobia’
A battle for British identity is in full swing. Is it part of Europe and should it be one country? It is not just UKIP that is asking questions about just how many more immigrants Britain can take. UKIP has exposed a distinctly ugly trend of vile Islamophobia that threatens only to get worse. One senior UKIP politician calls for British Muslims to have to sign up to a code of conduct and rails against Europe for “an explosion of mosques across their land.” Other parties are barely standing up to this and speaking out against it.
Britain’s role in the world then is also being redefined even if it is not registering much with the electorate. Much of this is a natural post-imperial decline but also results from many self-inflicted wounds. Is the UK really at the center of Europe? It may not even remain in it. It is close to the U.S. but how much influence does it carry, not least with President Obama.
Its approach is to be close to the United States but which United States? It is at best a wobbly bridge to Europe buffeted by storms of Euroscepticism. As U.S. power diminishes in the Middle East, so does Britain’s. Post Iraq 2003, Britain has lost much of its previous stature. Its failure to contribute any constructive solutions to Syria, Iraq and Libya only reinforce the point.
The British elections highlight many of the debates that are besetting all European countries the outcome of which have profound implications for the Middle East
None of the major parties have committed to the NATO mark of spending two percent of GDP on defense. Washington is not impressed not least as the Russian bear is flexing its muscle. An official report prepared for Congress in March suggested “some reassessment of the special relationship may be in order.”
Yet the reality is that foreign interventions are less and less popular. The UK intervened in Iraq and the occupation disastrous; it got U.N. backing for a form of intervention in Libya, but went too far and failed. The decision not to intervene in Syria still divides British politics. British politicians are no longer sure of the terms under which the country might exercise military force. Ever since Iraq 2003, there has been a national crisis each time it is faced with this prospect. There are clear positives to that - war should never be an easy choice.
Politicians will not look at Syria, Libya and Yemen with any view to get involved. Britain may be a minor actor in larger coalitions but no more.
And this is why the Middle East barely gets a mention. None of the parties have any solutions to any of the regions’ crises and fear further UK involvement. Scratch harder, there are differences. The Labour party promises to recognize a Palestinian state though it has only committed itself to this in principle at some stage. The Conservatives will retain stronger links with the Gulf and adopt a more trade-friendly approach.
The British elections highlight many of the debates that are besetting all European countries the outcome of which have profound implications for the Middle East. Largely broke, the UK afford may cut defense spending, weaken ties with the U.S. and to give up all pretense of foreign interventions. Can there be a fortress Britannia that can isolate itself from the rest of Europe and insulate itself from the extremist currents and the crises to its south? And just how can Britain retain positive intercommunal relations with increasingly large ethnic communities and an increasingly xenophobic host population.
These questions are barely asked in these elections but the incoming governing coalition will have to find the answers. Britain’s place in the world is at stake, yet nobody cares to debate it.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He can be followed on Twitter @Caabu