But just as the fall of communism caught Margaret Thatcher off guard, so have the events in North Africa and the Middle East wrong-footed David Cameron and William Hague.
I have visited Cairo twice in the last month to meet the acting government as well as those who led the revolution, and know the region world well, so my perspective is different.
Foreign affairs have so often tripped up politicians. Yet the almost complete lack of interest in “abroad” displayed by today’s Conservative leadership until now is their own fault.
Moreover, when I was involved as a senior Conservative MEP in any discussions, these were nearly always without reference to the values of democracy, human rights or the rule of law to which billions worldwide still aspire and a happy few million Arabs have now grabbed for themselves.
Over the past month, Cameron and Hague have been forced to backtrack and apologise for misreading the historical events taking place in what the EU calls our “Neighbourhood”. The nadir was Cameron’s diversion from a Middle East tour to Cairo for a photocall in Tahrir Square, epicentre of the Egyptian revolution, while eight arms salesman skulked in the hotel.
When discussing how Britain could intervene in Libya’s civil war, he proposed a no-fly zone, but barely two days later he changed tack, announcing that Britain would airlift refugees from the Libyan-Tunisian border, supplying three aircraft when a week earlier the Foreign Office could not find a serviceable one to evacuate several hundred desperate Britons. In that chaos, China managed to ship out some 32,000 and Turkey 18,000.
All of this comes after the Foreign Secretary’s assertion last year that human rights was “at the heart of” foreign policy. Hague said: “Human rights are not the only issue that informs the making of foreign policy, but they are indivisible from it, not least because the consequences of foreign policy failure are human.”
Cameron’s leadership pledge to defect from the EU mainstream has reduced his capacity to influence Brussels or European capitals. As Bernard Dineen, the retired Yorkshire Post columnist, once wrote in this newspaper: “The trouble began when a would-be Palmerston in the Tory leadership decided to engage in European power politics. This juvenile exercise involved withdrawing from a mainstream EU group and joining a ragbag alliance of East Europeans.”
That the Conservatives could not foresee the significance of a unified Germany in 1989, nor the association with extremist groups in the EU more recently, or the nature of evolutions in the broader Middle East region, is in contrast to their coalition partners.
In a speech in Brussels as the Libyan crisis deepened, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister called – as do his EU partners – for a massive European response to the bravery of populations in North Africa fighting for democracy. “They have created an unexpected and game-changing turn of events in Europe’s neighbourhood: we must provide a game-changing response,” he said. He warned: “Despite our good intentions, we Europeans have failed in the past by allowing autocratic regimes to get away with making a pretence of reforming. We have imposed minimal conditionality and then failed to insist even on those low standards. We should never hold back from advocating our belief that freedom and the rule of law are the best guarantees of human progress and economic success, and that each country should find its own path to achieving peaceful change.”
The international community, from Washington to the Arab League and the UN – even the EU, which in foreign policy is not a single state but 27– have all reacted faster, more coherently and more astutely to these pivotal events in the Arab world over these last weeks than Cameron or Hague in simply trying to shape Britain’s foreign policy.
Edward McMillan-Scott (Yorkshire & the Humber) is vice-president of the European Parliament for democracy and human rights. A former leader of the Conservative MEPs, he joined the Liberal Democrats in 2010 after protesting against David Cameron’s new EU alliance.