Labour are right on Libya, but when will we get serious on foreign policy?

The first major foreign policy moment of the General Election is barely a few hours old and already, it has become just as tribally divided as the weeks of campaign that preceded it.

Today, Ed Miliband gave a speech where he connected the humanitarian nightmare in the Mediterranean with the slow, violent disintegration of the Libyan state. Chaos in both Libya and in the Med, he will say, could have been avoided if Britain had ‘…played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing by the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle’.

Like most of his speeches in this campaign, it is a measured and well written text. If elections were won on the quality of prose put out by each campaign, Labour might have a healthier lead in the polls. But any comment on the merits of Miliband’s words has been lost in the reaction to them from the right.

Labour’s contention, that the government should and could have done more in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, is hardly revolutionary. A military intervention that leaves behind it chronic instability, the murder of a foreign ambassador and a de facto civil war can hardly be classed as successful. The British and French led group of nations who intervenes seemed willing to pour little more than munitions into Libya. David Cameron was happy to take the applause for helping to topple Gaddafi but then didn’t want to perform the encore expected of him.

But the faux outrage that has greeted the advanced copy of Miliband’s speech shows, however, not some deep divide between the two party’s on foreign policy but rather the sad, secondary status foreign affairs now holds in Britain.

It has taken half of the election campaign for the Leader of the Opposition to make a serious comment the world outside of Western Europe. Even then, his comments were sparked by a massive human tragedy (which, like the fighting in Libya, has been ongoing for some time and been largely ignored). And in response the government, rather than giving a measured counter argument or attempt to refute his accusations, has been to scream outrage and to talk of ‘blood on hands’ and underhand tactics. In the press, commentators sneer that the man who voted against intervention in Syria (‘because Diane Abbott told him so’ is a popular refrain here), shouldn’t open his mouth on Libya.

If the last decade and a half of foreign affairs has taught us one thing, it should be that intervention is a terribly complicated business. We should see it debated properly, not treated as an election ‘dead cat’ issue. There has been no comment on how incredibly different the situations in Libya and Syria were, or just how comprehensively the West abandoned the new government in Tripoli. If the government have any defense to offer, they seem loathe to present it. But likewise, the opposition has taken awfully long to start talking about any foreign policy, let alone Libya.

It all begs the question, where have all the statesmen gone? Labour’s own Douglas Alexander has spent more time planning election strategy and fighting to hold his own seat than talking about the world at large. Since William Hague was quietly moved on, Phil Hammond has been a better ambassador for grey suits than he has British interests. David Cameron appears disinterested, although he looks increasingly bored with governing as a whole, not just foreign policy. Even today’s speech comes with the caveat that any Labour policy towards the current Mediterranean crisis will be delivered by a government that has tied one hand behind its back by the ‘Controls on Immigration’ manifesto pledge. I won’t even begin to ask what Nick Clegg’s input has been…

We deserve a better debate on foreign policy. No, scrap that, we need a better debate on foreign policy. But when will we get it?

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