UK General Election will be held on 7 May. The main struggle is between the Conservative Party, which has governed along with with the Liberal Democrats since 2010, and the Labour Party. This year are perfoming evenly in opinion polls that makes the “hung parliament”, that is without absolute majority of one of the parties, the most likely outcome.
The key topics of the election are the economy, NHS and future constitutional arrangement of the UK (this primarily concerns Scotland and England). Foreign policy is as usual not an important topic of the campaign and it hardly effects its outcome.
However, the parties explain their positions on all topics thoroughly. As for foreign policy, the key theme is the relations with the European Union, which are at the top of the agenda due to the potential 2017 referendum on leaving the EU.
Russia has been mentioned several times over the course of the campaign. Comparing UK party leaders to Vladimir Putin that took place during the leaders’ debate and in the media has stirred the most noticeable discussion.
Besides, the two main parties mentioned Russia in their manifestos. This should be noted for three reasons. Firstly, it is because of the fact that their careful, well-thought wording reflects the positions that will be present until the next election (due to take place in 2020).
Secondly, it is because Russia has not been mentioned regularly in the recent manifestos. For instance, last time Labour mentioned in 2001 and the Conservatives in 1997. This means that at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Conservatives have mentioned Russia only when they are in power.
Thirdly, it is because almost the only thing they could say about Russia is to attach the adjective “aggressive” to it. With this definition, both Labour and the Conservatives have mentioned Russia along with such threats as Islamic extremism and terrorism and the uncertainty in the eurozone. Moreover, the Conservatives state they will “continue to reject Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea” and to support Nato members, especially the closest to Russia.
It is to conclude that there is a consensus in the UK on the relations with Russia and the entire discussion centres around national, European and Euro-Atlantic defence and security issues. Given numerous comparisons of the current state in international affairs to the period of the Cold War, it is not surprising.
Europe Insight (formerly, Stranovedenie), a research company, conducted the analysis of the manifestos of the two main parties in post-war Britain. We evaluated the changes of topics regarding, and attitudes toward, Russia over the past 50 years. We aimed to answer two questions::
First, how has perception of Russia / USSR changed, and has any positive agenda ever been there?
Second, have the main parties ever viewed Russia / USSR not through the prism of defence and security?
We examined 26 manifestos of the last 13 UK elections. We also looked at earlier manifestos where fuller answers were necessary.
The analysis of British parties’ manifestos, carried out by Europe Insight for the period since 1966, showed the following results:
- Russia was mentioned in 15 out of 26 manifestos presented in 13 UK General Elections. Over this period, the Conservatives approached elections six times as a ruling party, Labour did this seven times.
- The Conservatives did not mention Russia in five manifestos, Labour in six manifestos.
- Twice – in 2005 and 2010, neither Labour nor the Conservatives talked about Russia.
- Every time Russia or the USSR was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto the party was in opposition. However, in 1974 and 1979 the party briefly mentioned it while in opposition.
- The Conservative Party mentioned Russia or the Soviet Union every time it was in government before the election.
- Of seven times when Labour were in government, they did not mention Russia four times. This repeated twice while in opposition.
- Defence and security issues were the main concern of the British parties. Since 1974, manifestos have noted growing military power and nuclear-related problems. The Soviet Union was regarded as a threat in Africa, Middle East and then – and until the 1990s – Europe; in 2015, this view has gained a fresh breath. Owing to this the tonality was largely negative.
- Nuclear weapon was the main topic during and after the Soviet times (scraping tests, armoury cuts, non-proliferation, and etc).
- The last time the Labour Party wrote about Russia / the USSR in a positive way and outside the defence and security narrative was in 1970. They pointed out productive cooperation between the West and the Soviet bloc in applied spheres like space or aircraft building.
- The Conservatives gave Russia their broadest support in 1992. They endorsed its IMF and World Bank memberships, trade agreement with the EC. They also gave their full backing to Boris Yeltsin.
- Given the current situation and noting an interesting example which is chronologically outside the 50-year period, it is worth citing the 1959 manifesto: “We are opposed to the Communist system as being wholly contrary to the basic principles of our freedom and religious faith. <…> Owing to the destructiveness of modern warfare both sides have in common a greater interest in peace than ever before. If humanity is to survive both must therefore learn to live together. With this aim we have worked for a steady improvement in our relations with the Soviet Union. The steps we have taken to expand trade, promote personal contacts and discussions and improve means of communication will be pursued.”