Analysis: The return of gunboat diplomacy
William Hague: Would be the most powerful foreign secretary for decades
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By Tom Powell.
Thursday, 08, Oct 2009 01:15
If the Conservatives win the next election Britain will have two prime ministers, one at home and one overseas.
By Matthew Champion.
William Hague's speech to the Conservative party conference in Manchester today showed the former leader positioning himself at his most statesmanlike.
The former party leader and deputy in all but name wields considerable influence over David Cameron on foreign affairs, a throwback to Palmerston's day when the holder of the office was truly responsible for determining policy and preserving Britain's interests abroad.
In a whirlwind speech where Hague set out five themes for directing the UK on the world stage he fought back against accusations from David Miliband and Nick Clegg that he was a dyed-in-the-wool transatlanticist.
Clegg in his conference leader's speech and Miliband at the close of Labour last week threw accusations at Hague his view of Britain's role on the world stage was rooted in the 19th century.
His aim to preside over a foreign policy that safeguarded the "enlightened national interest" went some way to confirming that, as did his remembrance of a Britain that drove the slave trade from the seas but not the Empire that it was built upon.
But Hague surprised delegates when, to almost complete silence, he pledged a distinctive foreign policy that's main aim was promoting British interests, advanced through the European Union as well as Washington.
In accusing the government of mismanaging the special relationship Hague reaffirmed his transatlantic credentials but also did something else unexpected in offering an olive branch to the rest of the world, promising "new friendships and alliances beyond North America and Europe which [ministers] have neglected to build".
In Afghanistan, where Hague neither pledged victory nor raised the prospect of withdrawal (merely "our forces will not be there forever") the shadow foreign secretary was reduced to promising a new strategy; the opposition unable to go further than this. But the aim of the war in Hague's eyes was identical to the government's, allowing the Afghan people to be responsible for their own security and preventing international terrorism festering there.
On Lisbon, a spanner in the works for Tory engagement through Europe, Hague said the treaty went against the "spirit of our age" by eroding the "fundamental belief that people should only be led and governed with their consent".
Elements of Hague's speech represented a continuation of Labour policy, including stepping up pressure on Iran and committing to the institutions of the UN and G20, as well as denouncing torture but not explicitly ruling out its use under any circumstances ever.
There have been hints throughout the conference that the Tories were serious about remaking Britain's relations with the outside world. Janis Sharp, the mother of hacker Gary McKinnon, told us she has been personally assured by shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve an unbalanced extradition treaty with the US would be remade as a priority.
And Hague reaffirmed Cameron's commitment to fostering a special relationship with India and Pakistan.
A rejection of the "strategic shrinkage" of Britain's role on the global stage and a clarion call to be an "inspiring example" to the rest of the world shows Hague wants to put UK interests closer to the heart of that project.
But he also set out the case for going to war for conflicts that have not yet started in a speech that did not mention the Iraq conflict the Tories under Iain Duncan Smith backed.
The gunboat diplomacy that Palmerston pioneered has since been renamed liberal interventionism, something Hague showed he was comfortable with in his speech this morning.
Cameron's closing speech to conference this afternoon will grab the headlines, but Hague has now set out his manifesto for how Britain should conduct itself beyond its shores.