What is Britain's role in the world? And what resources will be devoted to sustaining it? These questions, germane for more than 40 years anyway, have an extra urgency in this New Age of Austerity. Liam Fox is addressing the Scottish Tory conference as I write this.
Fox reiterates the urgent need for a post-election Defence Review but says "There is one area however where the basic argument has not changed. There will be a replacement to the submarine-based nuclear deterrent under a future Conservative government." Dr Fox acknowledges that it's impossible to make fim predictions for defence spending, but given that he complains that "despite the two wars [Britain is fighting] this year's defence spending, at 2.2% of GDP, is the lowest since the 1930s" it's reasonable to suppose that he believes significant increases in defence spending are needed, not least to equip the missions that are already being fought, let alone lay contingency plans for future, as yet unknown, operations.
Since Fox expects to be the next Defence Secretary you'd expect him to say that. But actually, judging from this speech, Tory defence policy is pretty similar to the current government's - just with more money being spent. As Fox says, "I can guarantee that a future Conservative government will never under-resource our military operations." That more money needs to be spent is not in doubt. Where that cash comes from is a rather different matter, given that (unless I've missed it) defence spending is not, or not yet, being treated as a "core commitment" as, for instance, the International Development budget is.
On Afghanistan: "Failure... cannot be an option for two reasons. First, it could mean the end of the NATO alliance. What would happen to the credibility and cohesion of NATO if we failed our first major test since the end of the Cold War?" That's a good question, but how credible or cohesive is NATO at the moment? And since Fox acknowledges that "There is not a clear and achievable political mission" to support the military operation in Afghanistan, the relationship between the civil and military objectives remains, shall we say, fuzzy.
As for NATO, the Tories seem to be supporting policies that would increase, not decrease, the strains upon the alliance. Here's Fox again: "Yesterday, I met with the Georgian Prime Minister in London... he asked us not to forget them. Our message to him and the people of Georgia must be very clear - we will not - forget you." I guess that means the Tories still support Georgian membership of NATO, with all the complications and hazards that may cause.
On Iran: a nuclear Iran "is simply not acceptable". Well, there aren't many people who are happy with the idea of Tehran possessing nuclear weapons, but simply saying it's unacceptable scarcely advances matters very far. Vis a vis Persian policy, the What is pretty clear and so is the Why, but the How remains a different matter altogether.
Granted, a party conference is not the best place for nuanced contemplation or exploring the trade-offs that come with complex problems resistant to simple or comprehensive solutions. And granted too, defence has been a traditional Tory stronghold and one area of Tory thinking that has not needed to be "decontaminated".
Nonetheless, the questions surrounding Britain's role in the world and the means of paying for that role remain unaddressed.
The most depressing line in Fox's speech? "We must not make the mistake that everyone who wishes us ill is reconcilable by dialogue and reason. Fantacism is alien to our way of thought but we must not forget that it exists or what it can mean. The 1930s should have taught us that lesson". The first two sentences are unobjectionable (and true!), the third is a horse of a different colour. It is not always 1938 and not every foreign policy problem is a re-run of Munich. Sure, it's just a conference speech and this sort of rhetoric cheers everyone up, but it would be refreshing if we could move beyond the knee-jerk references to the 1930s...