Ironic: Lib Dem robustness in foreign policy coincided with the total collapse of their vote (photo: Liberal Democrats, via Flickr)
Don’t laugh, but the party that went into the recent election with the strongest national security platform of any of the leaders, and with the best chance of impressing the man most directly threatening our security, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, was the Liberal Democrats. This was not previously the case, for in the last four contests their credentials were much weaker than those of Labour or the Conservatives. In 1997, Tony Blair and Robin Cook’s incipient “ethical foreign policy” made a welcome break from the “Conservative pessimism” which had led to the Bosnian disaster. In the 2001 election, post-Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Tony Blair’s standing in foreign policy was unsurpassed, and in Northern Ireland too; indeed, he enjoyed a formidable international reputation rivalled since, with less justice, only by Barack Obama. Even in 2005, although mine is a minority opinion here, Tony Blair was the best bet, having helped to get rid of Saddam Hussein and thus given Iraq a chance for progress now tragically denied to them by ISIS. By 2010, the post-Blair Labour party had fallen apart on foreign policy, and the Liberal Democrats made themselves unelectable through their opposition to the Trident independent deterrent. Then David Cameron’s Conservative party was the best bet for the security of Britain and the cause of democracy globally.
By 2015, however, Nick Clegg had wrought a considerable transformation. After 2010, the Liberal Democrats got steadily stronger on foreign policy, a field in which their polyglot leader was visibly comfortable. To be sure, his plan to reduce the number of submarines jeopardised the effectiveness of Trident, but it was still an improvement on their bald statement five years ago not to “seek a like-for-like replacement” for the existing fleet, which was widely regarded as a commitment to scrap it. They were certainly moving in the right direction, and besides there was every likelihood that once re-elected, and if confronted with continued Russian belligerence, Mr Clegg would have jettisoned this manifesto commitment as decisively as he did the one on tuition fees in the last parliament. Unlike some, he is more robust than he looks and sounds.
More importantly, the Liberal Democrats have been the strongest and most imaginative of the major parties on Russian territorial aggression. Mr Clegg stood out among Western and Central European government members in his demand for a boycott of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, until Putin withdraws from the Crimea. He was slapped down by the Prime Minister for his pains. Most importantly of all, the Liberal Democrats are now strongly opposed to a referendum on Europe. Timing is everything here: although Mr Clegg’s stance was not defensible in the long run, as the UK will need to decide where its destiny ultimately lies, it is the only possible policy in the short term until the eurozone has sorted itself out and the future shape of the Union is clear.