Comment: The world notices actions, not words

David Cameron’s “spirit of humility” line is likely to undermine Britain’s prestige overseas. But, as the immigration cap controversy shows, the real risk stems from deepening division within the Cabinet.

By Alex Stevenson

There are currently six government ministers in India, courting one of the world’s largest emerging economies with all their might.

The prime minister is joined by his chancellor, foreign secretary and business secretary, amongst others, while over 50 senior British business figures are present to do their bit.

Even Steve Redgrave and Kelly Holmes have come along for the ride. Clearly, this is an important trip.

Yet the delegation has already raised some fundamental questions about the new government’s approach to foreign policy. In an article in the Hindu newspaper today, Cameron says Britain approaches India with a “spirit of humility”. It’s obviously an attempt to offset the centuries of imperial domination which are now played up as ‘shared heritage’. Ah, those were the days.

Cameron’s “humility” reflects a new theme of subservience is developing in Britain’s approach to the world. Earlier this month, during Cameron’s first official trip to Washington, the PM made a similar remark, acknowledging that Britain was – and is – the “junior partner” to America. The comment attracted attention because he absurdly claimed it applied to the effort against the Nazis in 1940, when the US hadn’t even joined in the war. But its intention – a deliberate undermining of Britain’s previous grandstanding postures – is more significant.

The idea of an inoffensive Britain is not good news. What is the international stage for, if not grandstanding? It doesn’t mean ruling the roost in the way George Bush’s administration did for so many unpleasant years. It means being confident and bold enough to maintain respect for the UK. This country still matters.

Getting distracted by jingoism, or even by Cameron’s “humility” comment, isn’t such a good idea. For as the Cabinet’s immigration cap schism teaches us, what really matters isn’t rhetoric. It’s the policies, stupid.

What worries Indian officials and politicians isn’t words, but deeds. The imposition of an immigration cap, limiting the number of arrivals in Britain from outside the EU, is one such unpleasant act.

Earlier today the Liberal Democrats’ Vince Cable, whose party campaigned passionately against a cap at the general election, admitted an ongoing debate was taking place in the Cabinet on the issue. He insisted there was no conflict or disagreement. Sounds like a pretty boring debate, if that’s really the case.

In fact Cable and his Lib Dem allies are seeking a provision within the rules which would allow highly-skilled employees to transfer easily between the global offices of the biggest multinationals. Where the skills are needed, he doesn’t want the caps to stand in the way.

There is a consultation going on at present; this is the excuse the Cabinet uses, no doubt, for continuing its own “debate”. It wasn’t self-evident enough to prevent Cameron distancing himself from Cable earlier today, however.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the business secretary to argue for the advantages of free and open markets – and that’s what Vince does,” he told the Today programme.

“But we decide these things in a Cabinet, in a reasonable and sensible way.”

This makes for uncomfortable reading. For the stable government the coalition promised is, in reality, riven with divisions and uncertainty. Don’t think the Indians, or any other nation, won’t notice these tensions. They matter much more than the platitudes being uttered in abundance as the trade delegation continues its profitable work.

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