Britain slowly retreats

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 1995, 12:00am

IT was simply astonishing. The heads of state and national leaders from 121 countries gathered in one place and the would-be protector of Hong Kong was not among them.

I refer to the Copenhagen summit which ended earlier this week. Where was Britain? Li Peng was present with a legion of ministers and advisers. Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the United States, Russia and all the European Union were there, but the UK sent along a junior minister, Lynda Chalker, that few of the big players will have heard of.

It seems we have fussed for so long over whether Douglas Hurd will meet Qian Qichen, where and for how long, that the British Government has missed a golden opportunity.

John Major skipped the largest world gathering in decades - Britain wasn't even invited to the official royal banquet, making do with a buffet reception at the city hall.

Think of the missed bilateral chats. Li Peng spent his 21/2 days in a series of meetings with the governments of India, Korea, Denmark, the US, Japan and presumably many others. Britain did not even put in a bid.

The UK was the only European country not to send a national leader apart from Greece, and the prime minister there had the excuse of elections.

The President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, is going to Beijing in May to lead a business mission, so he is hardly likely to take time off to muddy his commercial waters over Hong Kong issues. The next chance for a senior bilateral meeting with China will be at the UN in September if the view that Mr Qian may only visit the UK as part of a European tour later in autumn is correct.

One finds it hard to disagree with Robin Cook, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, this week, that to miss such an event was 'breathtaking'.

But it is symptomatic of a larger malaise gripping the UK Government and not just domestically. Take a broad view of recent events and you see a real isolationist tendency emerging in the Conservative party.

The UK has a permanent place on the UN Security Council and has opposed the addition of potential newcomers like Germany and Japan. But one might ask what is it doing to justify its presence there at the moment? John Major did tour Israel and Palestine this week and he was one of the first Western leaders to visit Chairman Arafat at his new 'capital' of Jericho. But there is a limit to the strings Britain can pull in that dispute when the real influence comes from players much closer, such as Syria.

Douglas Hurd has taken about 50 foreign trips in the past 12 months and one could hardly accuse him personally of pandering to isolationism.

But take the Tory party as a whole and look at the way it relates to the European Union and to the US and can there be any wonder the UK has few friends in Brussels or Washington? THIS approach grants no dividends. The big Euro-wrangle for the UK this year has been over Spanish access to fisheries in the Irish Sea. The UK opposed it but it could not muster the support to block it because despite a commonality of interest nobody else was prepared to help the British case. There was no more influence left in the Brussels nets for a country which has constantly played the role of being the odd one out. If you adopt an isolationist position you can hardly protest when things do not go your way.

Take President Clinton's indirect snub to London this week inviting Gerry Adams to the White House. Clinton tried to phone Major to discuss the move. Major refused the call. The British claimed the lack of a secure line, that the two men's diaries would not 'gel' and that 'talks between world leaders take time to set up'.

Who can be surprised then, when Clinton has little time for Major and that the so-called 'special relationship' is on the rocks when it was the British Government which sided so openly with outgoing President George Bush, offering background on Clinton's days at Oxford as dirt for the Republican campaign? Marlin Fitzwater could satellite phone then vice-president Bush as he was rafting down China's Lijiang river in 1986. Even John Major knows how to handle a phone; it is how to make friends and influence people he is rusty on.