General elections prompt a universal reaction from political commentators. They feel compelled to compare this election with a previous one. For the Conservative-inclined that usually means 1992. Labourites are more likely to hark back to the defeat of Ted Heath in 1970.
What’s notable about this election is the lack of substantial debate on Britain and the EU, let alone the world. The EU has of course come up – frankly how could it not when one of the parties polling around 10 percent is founded on the premise that the UK leaves the EU. But the discussion of the EU has been limited to ‘do we stay’, ‘do we leave’, and ‘do we have a referendum’. There’s been little discussion of what our role in Europe should look like. In 1997, 2001 and 2005, this and related topics such as the Euro were some of the most important of the entire campaigns.
At times the Tory campaign in 2001 was almost entirely about saving the pound. In 1997, the conversation was about the Economic and Monetary Union (the snappily known as EMU). And in 2005, Conservative refusal to be more involved in Europe was a major theme.
The last two elections have seen much less discussion of Europe. Part of this might be down to Conservatives realising the electorate returned probably the most pro-Europe government ever three times in a row. But Tory commitments in 2015 of a referendum in two years’ time seems to suggest they don’t want, or don’t feel they have, to talk Europe in the same detail in this campaign.
UKIP will talk about Europe at the drop of Nigel Farage’s stylish trilby, mainly about how bad it is. But UKIP does have than just outright opposition to the EU. They have a broader policy platform, one that, ironically, makes them look rather like small insurgent groups of angry populists who are popping up across the EU: Alternative for Germany, Front Nationale on the right, Syrizia and Podemos on the left.
The slightly depressing truth is Britain today, and Britain’s political leaders today, seem more insular. Foreign policy isn’t something the Coalition parties are boasting about – although there’s not really much to boast about. Ed Miliband, for a child of an immigrant, is curiously reticent on the subject, the flashing neon sign of Iraq presumably coming up whenever he thinks about it. The SNP, would be kingmakers, are similarly disinclined to talk foreign affairs. Our own internal economic and constitutional crises have made us ignore the world around us. The nearest thing we’ve had to a substantive discussion on foreign policy we’ve had has been Michael Fallon’s curious attempt to impugn the patriotism of Mr Miliband for taking a slightly different, albeit almost identical, position on Britain’s nuclear weapons. Hardly edifying, hardly useful.
This is not only a shame, but dangerous. Whether we like it or not, the world around us matters and will matter to Britain. The Eurozone problem will not disappear because our politicians wish it away. IS will not go quietly because we’d rather focus on whether Ed and Nicola will get together. Vladimir Putin will not suddenly decide to recognise national borders after all. Splendid isolation was a myth even in the late-Victorian era. It’s an even bigger myth now. Politicians should stop believing it and start talking about their vision for how Britain interacts with the world outside of this island.