12 APRIL 1975, Page 6

Political Commentary

The obscure impulses of James Callaghan

Patrick Cosgrave

I have already noted in this column the contraction of vision on the part of British politicians over foreign policy; understandable though it is, considering the contraction of the country's power, it is nonetheless damaging, both for our interests and for our morale. As for the Foreign Secretary, there has rarely been a time when Britain was as ill-served in this major office of state as she is now, and the general contraction has gone on apace; 9D metimes as an act of will, sometimes for unavoidable reasons.

All this has, surprisingly, little to do with our membership of the EEC. It is quite proper that proand anti-Marketeers alike, who regard the question of our membership as the supreme political issue of the day should, for the moment, concentrate on it to the exclusion of all others; but membership or not is a domestic political and economic (as well as legal) issue as much as one of foreign policy. And inside or outside the Market we (and the continental nations as well) have a great many concerns of security and interest in many places around the world, which need a separate and imaginative appreciation. Only the other day, however, speaking on just this theme, Sir Herbert Butterfield wondered if a grasp of the principles of foreign policy and diplomacy mattered all that much any more.

It does not, of course matter as much as it did when Britain was a world power, but it still matters. First, because any further contraction of vision reduces yet more the sense Britons have of their identity in an international community, and thus reduces sharply their perception of themselves. Second, because Britain now inhabits a highly insecure world and because, no longer shielded by great possessions abroad and a successful home economy she needs to work much harder to make her way in the world, it is important that her statesmen understand the way in which relations between states work, and seize such advantages as intelligence and perception can provide out of local political combinations the globe over.

Thus to Mr Callaghan. A striking feature of the collapse of the already precarious status quo in South-East Asia has been the fact that the Foreign Secretary has had neither analysis to offer not action to take. The part Britain has played in the last weeks has been to leave a frigate cruising some sixty miles off the Vietnamese coast, and then to withdraw it. It would have been better, indeed, to take no action whatsoever, for the trivial hesitancy the instance of the frigate demonstrated indicated a government incapable of making any decision one way or another and a government, further, wholly at sea even in its judgement of a diplomatic situation. For, as General de Gaulle used to observe, a country with any pretensions to playing a serious part in international politics while it must distinguish sharply between situations where it can have an influence and situations where it can not, is well-advised always to have a judgement on affairs, whatever may happen.

Of course, the principal course of policy with which Mr Callaghan has been identified has been the renewal of good relations between this country and the United States, after these had been somewhat soured by differences of opinion between Mr Heath and Dr Kissinger, especially over Middle Eastern policy. But there can be little doubt that the good fellowship existing between the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State — generally to be approved though it is — goes no more deeply than the diplomacy of the successful social encounter, for it is on that level essentially that Mr Callaghan understands foreign policy. Rela

tions between Lord Home and Dr Kissinger were often quite good; and there can be little doubt that the Secretary of State, especially in his calmer moments, took account of Lord Home's views on foreign policy, because he appreciated that they were the fruit of understanding of its processes. Mr Callaghan — and the rather second-rate group of civil servants at present in charge of the Foreign Office — still makes great play with the belief that Britain is listened to, especially by the Americans, because of the inherited experience of the FO in international relations. That was once true: the then Senator Lyndon Johnson, when Senate Majority Leader, determined his policy in the first Laotian crisis according to the view of the Foreign Office. But no statesman could take the architects of British diplomacy seriously now; and the calibre of people at the Quai d'Orsay is now vastly superior to that of those who work in Whitehall.

I have mentioned Mr Callaghan's social conception of diplomacy. It is, essentially, the product of an incurably parochial mind. When Mr Callaghan speaks on foreign policy he speaks of relations between states rather as he would speak of the politicking of the Labour Party's national executive — at which and on

which he is superb — because his mind cannot grasp any higher activity. (Indeed, he demonstrated this when he reached the point of nervous breakdown at the Treasury.) Occasionally, of course, he will reach out for the grand statement, for a desire to make grand statements sits well with the obscure impulses of a man immensely impressed and moved bY the fact that his humble self now sits down with the great of the international scene. I remembered one such during the Southampton Itchen by-election of 1970, when Mr Callaghan first voiced his opposition to the EEC. He was nn home ground, speaking to a Labour mob; and they loved him. But when he referred to the Market as being a threat to the language °f Chaucer and Shakespeare it was patheticallY evident to anybody intelligent who Was listening that Jim had intellectually overreached himself again. As we now know, even that opposition svas spurious. Mr Callaghan is one of those politicians to whom the highest good is his OM continuance in office and who, in the pursuit of that good, cares less and less about doing anything. Writing critically once of F. 5' Oliver's classic defence of political inactivitY Endless Adventure (and of its influence nr, Baldwin), L. S. Amery caught exactly the sPir," that moves Mr Callaghan. This is the boo', wrote Amery, "in which, taking Walpole not only as his starting point, but in fact as hi! model, he developed a most ingenious anu plausible case for inaction and the absence of a policy, and for just keeping in office, as the supreme quality of statesmanship." Of coarse there are times — when a country is very secure, or when she has recovered from a great conflict — when inactivity is the best policy, but neve: when a country in a changing and increasingiY desperate world is trying to seek out security. In the field of security, for instance, Mr Callaghan is totally uninterested in defence. When Lord Home was at the FO and Lord Carrington (who may yet one day be a great Foreign Secretary) at the Ministry of Defence much was done to preserve Britain's interest especially in the dangerous era of détente. The two peers often differed, but there was a basic understanding on both their parts of the threatsf Britain faced, and especially of the dangers °, being euphoric about the Russians. Mr Car laghan gives a fig neither for security nor the the Russians, and will take his attitude to then. from the trade union movement. Even attitude to the EEC can be Summarised In Oliverian terms as never wanting to leave a clun once he has become a member.

Inanition is not, however, all that there is Mr Callaghan, He is more than willing to take " lead from the kind of socialist who discusses foreign policy and acts in diplomacy not in thee service of his country's interests, but in thA service of emotional attitudes. Miss Lestor aO Mrs Hart have been allowed to behave„1"ti Eastern and Southern Africa in a quite fo,°"sts and emotional way, without regard to the ra„,,c or potential of politics there. And the best PI; Callaghan could offer on the situation in Aegean was that when the barricades wereLiPs in Greece he would know on which side he vv,ao, likely to be. (This was just before upsetting tl'ic`' balance of power in Cyprus by selling Gree,,, interests out to the Turks, not because "t thought that was in Britain's interest —tt would have been forgivable — but because m did not know what else to do.) Under Mr Callaghan Britain is steadilY becoming, internationally, a more comMorit place and silly country and, because he does no., take foreign policy very seriously, and given eternal preoccupation with LabourPov`r4 politics, there is a very serious danger tha.t ",(3 will allow interest after interest to be sacrifice`,., to the doctrinaire ideologies of Labour wingers and unilateralists. To add to all troubles, then, we have a Foreign Secretaii who is not only incapable of defending Inw country's interests, but does not even kn° what they are.