7 Apr 2015

Election 2015: did everyone forget about foreign policy?

Foreign policy: two words that have so far played very little part in the run-up to the general election. What would the parties do?

David Cameron at military briefing (Reuters)

The Islamic State group is reportedly close to taking control of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria and fighting rages in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, but these things are attracting little comment from UK politicians.

Foreign affairs hardly got a mention in last week’s party leaders’ debate, despite the Iran nuclear deal and the massacre of students in Kenya.

Chris Patten, the former Conservative minister and last British governor of Hong Kong, put it like this: “While much of the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, there has been little talk about Britain’s international role and responsibilities.”

While much of the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, there has been little talk about Britain’s international role and responsibilities.
Chris Patten

Most of the parties still haven’t published their election manifestos. But it’s possible to piece together where they are likely to stand on key foreign policy issues.

Military intervention

Under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, British military assets have been used against the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 and against Islamic State group targets in Iraq from last year.

Labour backed the government in Commons votes approving the use of force in Libya and Iraq, but voted against the government motion supporting military action against the Assad regime in Syria in 2013.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage says his party “has been consistent in its opposition to military intervention in foreign wars over the last decade”. He campaigned vociferously against intervention in Syria.

Mr Farage has called Islamic extremism “the biggest threat and crisis to our way of life that we have seen for over 70 years”.

But he has said that instead of intervening directly, Britain should “prepare a plan to help countries like Syria, like Iraq, like Kenya, like indeed Nigeria, to try and help them to deal with the real threat that faces us”.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas voted against air strikes in Libya, Syria and Iraq.

It is legally possible for the government of the day to begin hostilities without seeking the approval of parliament, but recent precedent is for MPs to vote on military action.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters)


The coalition supported EU-wide economic sanctions against Russia following its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

David Cameron has said Britain was “at the forefront” of pushing for firm action and has threatened to to take sanctions to a “whole different level” if Russian aggression continues.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has said no economic or diplomatic action should be ruled out, and associated himself with calls to stop Russia from hosting the 2018 World Cup as part of international sanctions.

Labour has also backed sanctions, with shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander calling for the EU to “continue to show a robust and united response to Russia’s recent aggression”.

This EU Empire, ever seeking to expand, stated its territorial claim on the Ukraine some years ago
Nigel Farage

Ukip’s MEPs have publicly opposed sanctions against Russia and blamed the European Union for stirring up the Ukraine crisis.

Nigel Farage has said: “This EU Empire, ever seeking to expand, stated its territorial claim on the Ukraine some years ago, just to make that worse of course some Nato members said they too would like the Ukraine to join Nato.

“We directly encouraged the uprising in Ukraine that led to the toppling of the president Yanukovych and that led in turn of course to Vladimir Putin reacting. And the moral of the story is if you poke the Russian bear with stick, don’t be surprised when he reacts.”


The leaders of three biggest parties have all supported continuing the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of UK national income on overseas aid.

Smaller parties including the SNP and Plaid Cymru also back spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid, while the Greens’ website says the party wants to increase spending to 1 per cent of GDP within ten years.

Ukip say they would end the ring-fence of the aid budget, saving £9bn a year.

Defence spending

The Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour have all failed to commit to meeting the Nato target of spending 2 per cent of national income on defence in the next parliament.

Britain is one of only four out of the 28 member states currently hitting the target. But experts we will miss the benchmark by the middle of the next parliament if spending plans are not changed.

Read more: FactCheck - is the UK set to break its Nato defence spending obligations?

A Labour government would hold a strategic defence and security review in 2015 to decide on spending priorities.

In policy documents that now appear to have been deleted from its main website, Ukip have previously said they would raise military spending to £50bn in 2016. The party now has a more modest pledge of meeting Nato’s 2 per cent target.

Nigel Farage’s party says it will create a Veterans’ Administration with a dedicated government minister to look after the interests of those who have served in the armed forces.

Labour says it will make abusing or discriminating against Verbally abusing or discriminating against members of the armed forces illegal.

The Green Party’s website envisages an end to large-scale military spending, with service personnel “severely reduced in number” and some training areas “decommissioned and used as nature reserves”.

But the party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, has pledged to stick to coalition defence spending plans over the next parliament.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon attends anti-Trident rally (Reuters)

Nuclear options

Labour and the Conservatives favour replacing the Trident nuclear submarine fleet with a similar continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

The Lib Dems say they would only replace some of Britain’s four nuclear-armed submarines and they would not need to be on constant patrol.

The Greens and the SNP say they want to scrap the UK’s nuclear deterrent altogether.

Ukip policy documents have also suggested would cancel the replacement of Trident in favour of a whole new nuclear strategy – as well as abolishing the Ministry of Defence – but Mr Farage has since said he would not scrap Trident.

EU membership

David Cameron has promised to deliver an “in/out” EU referendum by 2017.

Ed Miliband says he “guarantees” to hold a referendum if the UK is asked to transfer more powers to Brussels, but admits a vote is “unlikely” under a Labour government.

The Lib Dems also promise to hold a referendum if there is a “material transfer of sovereignty” from Britain to Europe, but say they will campaign to stay in the union.

The Green Party says it supports a referendum, while Ukip wants Britain to leave the EU immediately.