In an election campaign unique for its distinct lack of foreign policy debate, last Friday marked a distinct shift of gear. For the most part, candidates’ attentions over the past few months have been much more firmly focused at home – not just because domestic policies inevitably, and understandably, tend to occupy a larger space in voters’ minds, but also reflecting the legacy of last year’s Scottish Independent Referendum, which has reignited a previously dormant inter- and intra-national frontier of contested identity and governance.
The rise of the Scottish National Party, and its ensuing role in inciting a resurgent nationalism in Scotland and undermining the two-party stranglehold that the Labour and Conservative Parties have held over British politics, has meant that Westminster’s most pressing international threat – existential or otherwise – appears to loom on its doorstep. In turn, we have seen a push from the Conservative Party to evoke a counter-nationalism through its ‘English votes for English laws’ proposals, coming to a head today as the Prime Minister and William Hague launched the first ever exclusively English Election Manifesto in history.
As a result, the tone of the campaign has, on many occasions, revealed a United Kingdom at war with itself, and a party system firmly focused inwards. Nonetheless, as we have seen over the past week, the need to confront a much more global conversation cannot always be avoided – and the 2015 Election campaign has been forced to expand its scope outside of its own borders in two very distinct and interesting ways.
Firstly, the fast-escalating exodus of refugees into the Mediterranean, which has pulled Britain – alongside its other EU counterparts – into a difficult debate about the transnational movement of people in an age in which governments can no longer structure their international military engagement as a dichotomy of defence and development aid.
The British Government realised it had no choice but to respond to the situation as polling began to suggest that voters largely view it through a prism of an international humanitarian crisis – which tends to appeal to their altruism – rather than the more contested and complex conversation about immigration, in which the international becomes firmly rooted in the domestic sphere. In doing so, it has sought to reverse the criticism it faced earlier in the year from the United States around its unwillingness to increase defence spending into a strength, by highlighting its leading expenditure position in the EU – and linking this to a sense of noble responsibility to intervene.
Any effective intervention in the ongoing disaster in the Mediterranean may also provide an electoral boon to the Conservative Party, as research has shown time and time again that voters will tend to recognise and reward swift and sensitive responses from incumbents at the ballot booth. By contrast, Ed Miliband’s choice to make a link between the botched intervention in Libya and this anarchic flow of desperate people is – whether factual or not – less likely to resonate with the electorate; given many voters are likely to have a fairly limited understanding of the conflict, faced with a constant stream of media images of human suffering, they may reasonably be more focused on a conversation about solutions.
However, the second way in which the international world has thrust itself into the campaign is much more advantageous to the Labour Party. On Friday morning, one of the world’s largest banking organisations – HSBC – announced that it was considering moving its headquarters from London due in part at least to the ongoing uncertainties caused by the Conservatives’ and UKIP’s proposed EU Referendum. Their timing is important, and provided a boon to Ed Miliband on the day of his Chatham House speech about Britain’s place in the world – no doubt hastily re-written to focus on the European Union.
While opinion polling has shown that Britain’s membership of the EU is a key issue for voters, there has been a significant level of consternation about the idea of a Referendum, or a full-scale BREXIT, from many companies and business groups in London in particular, for quite some time. Yet, these fears have been somewhat muted, perhaps due to the complexities some organisations – or indeed, the city’s Mayor, who has called for the Referendum to be brought forward due to the uncertainty it inspires in the business community – would face in being seen to publicly oppose a core policy platform of the major governing party. For this reason, HSBC’s decision to come out today is particularly interesting, as it lends enormous credibility to the Labour Party’s somewhat floundering relationship with business, and gives them a strong position to begin a serious conversation with voters that puts an economic argument at the heart of a debate that has largely been dogged by issues that Labour struggles to own, such as immigration.
It is welcome that recent events have forced the major parties to look outside of their stage-managed plans for the Election, and to think about where they will seek to take the nation, in the face of an increasingly complex and volatile global landscape. While voters themselves might not identify Britain’s international relationships as a core preoccupation of their day-to-day lives, seeing the parties engage with such issues nonetheless presents an important opportunity for us to understand their strategic thinking, their humanitarian priorities, their capacity to govern under pressure, and, ultimately, their suitability to lead one of the world’s most powerful nations. In the modern age, no government can afford to only look inwards, so why should we expect any less of them during our election campaigns?