John McTernan: Small world - for UK politicians

The absence of any major UK figures willing to take a visible stand on international issues puts our system in a very bad light, writes John McTernan

Hong Kong police attempt to use pepper spray on protesters. Picture: Getty

What is going on in the world outside the UK? Not much, according to our senior politicians – and I mean all of them. For them, we may as well be living in the times of the Roman Empire when the Mediterranean was so named because it was thought to be literally in the middle of the world. The world as seen from Westminster simply consists of the European Union. And the only issues MPs, and wannabe MPs, seem to care about are related to the EU. Human rights, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Immigration, free movement of labour and a points-based system. It’s not just that it’s boring – though it is – it’s that it is achingly parochial.

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The party conferences came and went. Each week there were major events around the world – Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, demonstrations in Hong Kong, the spread of Ebola. And every week there was scant reference to them by the respective parties. Was there really nothing to say?

Let’s take the EU. It has a context – political, economic and historic. They are – in reality – inseparable. The EU has helped keep the peace in Europe since its creation. One of the keys to that has been freedom of movement. Why does that matter so much? For one thing, there are soft social advantages. If you holiday in other people’s countries, you will find it harder to be prejudiced against them and to harbour resentments. After all, even Nigel Farage admits he likes Europe for its food. For another, and more importantly, free movement helps fast-track development. Spain and Portugal matched the living standards of the rest of Europe in less than a generation after emerging from dictatorship.

This is in no small part due to freedom of movement. Tony Blair saw this and it is why he agreed that all A10 countries – formerly under Communist oppression – should have free movement. It bound them to the EU. And it has had geo-political consequences. At the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poland and Ukraine had the same GDP per head. Now they are worlds apart. That’s one of the main reasons that Ukraine wants to move closer to the EU. For their temerity, they have had a part of their country annexed by Russia. Despite an agreement on territorial integrity signed by, among others, the UK.

Bad enough that we let Ukraine become the plaything of Putin. Worse that over 300 Ukrainians have been killed since the ceasefire – and we don’t appear to care. Worst of all, our leaders know that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will never be annexed by Russia because they are in the EU – a central part of whose power to unite and protect is that mutual right of free movement. It’s not just that it’s parochial, nor even that it’s craven, it’s the fact it is wilfully small-minded. The public see politicians as small figures and here they are diminishing themselves even further.

Or take Hong Kong. Demonstrators were on the streets of downtown Hong Kong during the Tory party conference. Those Hong Kongese were merely demanding the democratic rights promised to them, and they thought guaranteed, by the UK government. But the only freedom the Tories cared about was the right of British citizens to have freedom from human rights. No wonder they cared little about Hong Kong’s democratic rights. What a betrayal. And what a revelation of how amoral a mercantilist foreign policy is.

David Cameron kowtows to the Chinese Communist leadership because he wants to trade with them. Scared of offending Beijing, he stays silent and hopes we can get some crumbs off the table. Just as Alex Salmond shamed Scotland by rushing to offer our salmon when Norway lost contracts because their government had met the Dalai Lama. People may argue with liberal intervention as a foundation for foreign policy. But better, surely, to have values and principles than simply to sell yourself shamelessly for the highest price.

Finally, Ebola. Seriously, what on earth is going on here? We have no excuses. First, the UK has an abiding responsibility for West Africa because of our historic links – and our current communities. Second, we have world-class scientists working publicly and privately in bio-medical research. Third, we have the biggest pile of cash in our history to spend on foreign aid. What on earth would have been more helpful to West Africa than a vaccine for Ebola? (And it might have been handy in the West now too.) But, no, apparently that’s not what foreign aid is for – not for something sensible, long-term and helpful.

It tells us something very revealing – and disturbing – about ourselves that Aids and Ebola were discovered at around the same time. Since then, we have created a barrage of treatments for HIV/Aids that means it is no longer a terminal disease. But the same has not happened for Ebola. Indeed, one of the reassuring facts published recently about Ebola was that the fatality rate isn’t 100 per cent – it’s only 49 per cent. It is hard, indeed near impossible, not to conclude that something that could kill us in the West is treated far more seriously than something that is unlikely to touch us. As Ebola is showing us brutally and fatally.

In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard the ageing actress Norma Desmond is challenged: “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Her reply is famous: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.” Maybe that’s the real problem with modern politics. It’s not that there are no big figures. (I instinctively react against those who recall a previous golden age. As I recall, the 1970s really weren’t that hot). Nor is it that there are no big causes. I have just listed some of the most pressing current foreign issues – there are many more. Politicians are shrinking themselves. Until they stand tall, they will not earn our respect again.