I have been participating in a small conclave of very senior foreign policy experts: by experts I mean Foreign Minister (several were present) and Senior Ambassadorial level. It was one of those informal meetings that drives much of the opinion forming on key issues in international relations. I was one of those few present in an unaffiliated analytical capacity, since I have direct experience of several of the topics covered. The conference was conducted under the Chatham House rule, which limits what I can say to reporting the tone of the meeting and does not reveal attendees or ascribe views let alone direct quotes to specific individuals.
In any event the point I wish to make is not about the specifics of this meeting.
What this meeting- and several others that I have attended recently- has revealed, is the utter breakdown of relations between Britain and its allies. I would say that the United Kingdom is not only isolated, it is actually pitied.
Neither is this a European phenomenon: Americans were expressing the same attitude. One who was present when Gordon Brown visited Barack Obama, was contemptuous that the only thing that the British wanted to gain out of a meeting with the President of United States was essentially a photo opportunity. There are a variety of critical issues- not least in Afghanistan- that could have been usefully discussed, but the British avoided anything of substance at all.
Nor is this simply a function of the outgoing government.
Meetings with Conservative front benchers had been similarly inconclusive. The Europeans found that Conservative debates were simply about whether or not they should discuss anything at all- since the British relationship with the US was the critical one. Unfortunately, the Americans already have at least as close discussions with other EU and NATO states as with the UK and don't need British intervention, let alone intermediation. Indeed the idea that such intervention was needed was regarded as a joke. The Conservatives ignorance of foreign policy was regarded as just as damaging as the vacuousness of Labour practice of it. The special relationship- in any practical form- is finished.
Britain is not respected. It is not liked. It is becoming regarded as an embarassment- a mad relative who one has to see at Christmas, but would choose to avoid at all other times. A Miss Havisham cloaked for a wedding with an American groom who will never come.
Although Catherine Ashton- the new British EU foreign affairs supremo- is personally regarded quite well, her selection was an irrelevance, since these new Lisbon mandated roles rely on personal political influence: as she is an unknown unelected, and British figure, her power base was exceptionally weak. The petty calculations that Brown made in selecting her were contemptible and pathetic in the full meaning of both those words.
The British Conservatives phobia towards the EU has already inflicted great damage. The interests that they claim to represent are regarded as totally irrelevant in the wider world. British influence has imploded. The economic crisis will remove the last fetish of British power: its larger than average military clout. Those that have had meetings with the Conservative front bench expressed general astonishment as to failure of these people to understand the full implications of the positions that they were laying out. With few exceptions, the quality of the Tory front bench was considered to be exceptionally light weight.
Isolated, irrelevant to the United States, ignored by the rest of the European Union. Even a new government seems set to lose further ground in the international system.
It will be a very long haul to recover any ground. I must confess to being shocked and very sad indeed just how far the British star has fallen.