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Henry Kissinger called it the “hinge”. Should foreign policy serve the national interest or moral imperatives? And how is each to be defined in today’s world?
This kind of theoretical rumination exasperates the British, but one of them is under pressure to give it a go sometime soon. Nine months from a general election that could make him prime minister, we only have a sketchy sense of Ed Miliband’s take on the world. The Labour leader is minded against a referendum on EU membership and a bit warier of military action than the prime minister, David Cameron, but this is not much to go on. He has not given a set-piece speech on foreign policy.
Geo-strategic visions announced in stentorian tones are every bit as silly as the British believe, and have a mixed record of surviving first contact with reality. Mr Cameron’s speeches on foreign affairs in opposition have not dated well. But some see room for at least a statement of priorities and operating principles from a man who could have a nuclear fleet at his disposal very soon. Even a bland tour d’horizon would show that Mr Miliband was thinking seriously about the world.
He should also consider the cynical political case for doing it. Foreign policy does not decide elections but it can affect our perception of a leader’s clout, presence and, well, leaderliness. And this absolutely does decide elections. It is also his point of greatest weakness. Even voters aching to back Labour wonder whether he is made for the very highest office.
Giving a speech will not fix that problem, but not giving a speech is making it worse. Politics is about gut impressions. Nobody has an impression of Mr Miliband as a statesman, and this is partly because he rarely talks about the highest matters of state: national security, foreign interests, alliances and enemies. He has a forgivable passion for political economy, but that subject will never constitute the entirety of a prime minister’s work.
To judge by recent events, it might not even account for the majority of it for much longer. The rapid darkening of the global picture makes some show of seriousness from Mr Miliband all the more important. Voters will want to know they can put him up against the likes of Vladimir Putin. His answers to the world’s dilemmas matter less than his outward recognition of them. He has to grip the hinge, even if he does not turn it one way or the other.
The significance of Oasis
Young MPs elected in 2010, the cohort of Liz Truss and Chuka Umunna, are coming to be known as the “Oasis generation”. The Mancunian rock band released their debut album, Definitely Maybe, 20 years ago this month. It inaugurated two years of monstrous success, culminating in the Knebworth concerts of 1996, when 5 per cent of the British population are said to have applied for tickets.
If the band have become a cultural reference point, it is with reason. Britain changed almost as much in the 1990s as it did in the 1960s. It was when the Thatcherite economic reforms of the previous decade really showed through, diluting old class rigidities into a single, brashly consumerist culture. Music reflected this. Before Oasis, “indie” musicians were meant to shun commercialism. They were not meant to buy Rolls Royces and promise to become the biggest band in the world.
There were subtler changes too. As recently as 1993, when the far-right British National Party won council seats in London, the union flag had nativist connotations. Three years later, when Noel Gallagher had it painted onto his guitar, it was a happy symbol. “Britpop” did more than any political campaign to reclaim the flag.
If Oasis were the start of something, they were the end of something else. As the last band to make it big before the internet balkanised pop culture, they might turn out to be the last truly national band. Britons of all varieties hummed the songs and gossiped about the Gallagher brothers: the Soho mod and the Surbiton housewife knew their Noel from their Liam. Now, with the inexhaustible choice offered by digital technology, people do their own thing. Some bands are beloved of teenagers. Others electrify the musos. But nobody commands the nation or defines a moment in time.
The MPs elected in 2020 will not be known as the Coldplay generation.