For the past fifteen months the watchwords for the Labour Party have been “One Nation”. Everything ends up being shot through that prism, and every press release, speech and utterance seems to include at least a cursory reference to it.
But “One Nation” seems by it’s very definition to be a little more insular than New Labour, and a little more focused on the domestic than the international. So where does that leave Foreign Policy under One Nation Labour? As I met Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander recently, that’s what I wanted to find out.
On the day we meet David Cameron is in China, a country which Alexander considers to be paramount in any discussion of the future of Foreign Policy. That’s something that’s clear from his new book “Influencing Tomorrow”, which gives a fascinating insight into the contours of a future Labour Foreign Policy. It outlines a future for Britain that is, in Alexander’s words, “consciously multilateral” and “Asia aware”. I’m guessing more than a few of the mandarins over at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are leafing through it as we speak, preparing themselves with the thoughts of their potential next boss.
But I digress. Alexander says that the defining story of our age is “the rise of Beijing rather than the reach of Brussels.”
That refrain that the Tories are banging on about Europe and missing the far bigger and more important global shift is one that Douglas returns to over and over. I don’t think it’s message discipline as such (although he certainly practices that) – I think it’s annoyance at a job being done badly. Alexander says that he wishes Cameron had gone to China earlier rather than three and a half years into his time as PM. He’s been every year for the past three years.
Alexander is far more willing to use Labour’s record in government as a means to attack the Tories than most fellow Shadow Cabinet ministers. A question about how Cameron (mis) handled issues around the Dalai Lama, Tibet and China are answered with praise by way of contrast for the way Labour handled the same issue. Whilst his peers are often uncomfortable singing the praises of the last government, Alexander doesn’t seem to have those same hang ups.
But although Alexander clearly considers how Britain reacts to the rise of Asia to be more important than squabbles over Europe, would he be willing to rule in or out a referendum on whether Britain ends up in or out?
“We don’t believe that it’s in the national interest right now to commit to a referendum in 2017.”
That’s not a no.
“The tragedy for Britain is that Europe needs to change, but so divided and fractious is the Conservative Party, that the Prime Minister is inhibited in his capacity to secure those changes by looking in the rear view mirror. If you spend your time looking in the rear view mirror when you’re meant to be driving you tend to crash.”
Again, Alexander’s criticisms of Tory policy on Europe seem driven more by annoyance at their incompetence than anything else. He mocks them for their failure to answer the basic question of how they’d vote in a referendum and he talks down Cameron’s EU speech last year as “a party handling strategy dressed up as a foreign policy speech”.
Yet he’s clearly concerned at what Tory renegotiation on Europe might look like:
“I think his real agenda is to take powers back in order to take rights away. If you want to see the real agenda of the Tory Party in relation to the Social Market in Europe, look at the Beecroft Report.”
He suggests that paternity and maternity rights and paid holiday would be under immediate and direct threat if Cameron succumbs to the wishes of his backbenchers. All part of the global race:
“If (Cameron) thinks that Britain can compete with rising Asian powers on the basis of a low skill, low wage, low productivity, diminished rights type of economy, he’s kidding himself and he’s perpetrating a very dangerous fiction.”
Of course not all Foreign Policy is about the detail of diplomacy and the vagaries of referenda. Sometimes foreign policy means matters of war and peace. And so it was only a few months ago when Parliament was recalled to vote on British intervention in Syria. In the end Labour’s opposition to acting before the evidence was in brought Cameron’s plans for a quick air strike to an end. And Obama’s plans too. So – without wanting to sound too lofty – did Labour alter the course of history?
“If you look at the words of President Obama, in which he referenced the votes in Westminster that Thursday evening the following weekend, when he explained his decision to take the issue of military intervention to Congress. So you don’t need to take my word for it – take the word of President Obama.”
Yet how events unfolded as a result of what he calls the “brave and right decision taken by Labour” was clearly something of a surprise to Alexander:
“None of is who voted that evening I think can honestly claim to have known with any certainty that a diplomatic path would open up after those votes. All of us should be grateful that it did. And had Labour not acted, and voted, then I think we would have seen air strikes that weekend and that would have led to frankly unknowable consequences.”
Was Douglas surprised that Cameron threw the towel in that night after losing the vote? Not really, it seems things were far less spontaneous than they looked watching from outside the chamber:
“Many people see that as an example of the “crimson tide” or a flash of blood to the head from the Prime Minister. I was sitting next to Ed and discussed with him the question he asked of the Prime Minister – an undertaking that the Royal Prerogative would not be used for military action without coming back to the House of Commons. Very obviously to those of us on the front bench, the Prime Minister read out a pre-prepared statement. So these were not ill-judged, ill-considered words.”
But whose words were they? Who counselled Cameron to abandon the rush to intervention?
“There is certainly speculation that the key voice in advising the Prime Minister of that course was the Chancellor of the Exchequer and not the Foreign Secretary. The following morning – curiously – it was George Osborne not William Hague who came on the Today Programme. The following Sunday it was George Osborne and not William Hague who appeared on Marr.”
So has the bar been raised for the level of evidence needed to win support for military action in the Commons?
“I think in all honesty it was the intervention in Iraq and the aftermath of that, that raised the bar of public legitimacy for intervention. We should be informed by Iraq but not paralysed by it, and that’s why at an earlier this stage in this Parliament, Ed made – I believe – the right decision, the difficult decision in the long shadow of Iraq, to commit British forces to the international effort in Libya. Now the reason I mention Libya is that the bar has been raised, but it’s not a bar that it is impossible in any circumstances to get cross.”
Alexander clearly feels that the rush to recall Parliament and force through a vote on Syria was as a result of Cameron pledging to support President Obama “based on a timetable drawn up elsewhere”. Clearly he means Washington.
What’s curious about this discussion of US foreign policy is that Alexander is very clearly a Americanophile. Or perhaps a Democratophile. An Obama poster adorns his office wall, and I’m pretty sure he’s drinking from an Obama mug.
So is Labour’s pro-Obama, pro-Democrat, but anti-intervention (on this occasion) approach a sign that Labour can have a “special relationship” that doesn’t always mean saying yes to America? Perhaps, but it seems that disagreement over Obama’s approach to Syria wasn’t limited to the Labour Party. Alexander suggests that Obama was facing defeat on Syria not only in the Republican controlled House of Representatives, but also in the Democrat controlled Senate – a quite remarkable state of affairs for a US President on a matter of war and peace:
“I have very good friends on Capitol Hill and they assured me that not only was this not a Britain versus the United States issue, but that even within the Democratic Party itself there were people who were not convinced of the timetable and the impact of the military strikes that were anticipated.”
And so the contours of an Alexander-led Labour Foreign Policy appear to be mapped out. Alert to the rise of the Asian powers, a refusal to be sucked into the Euro-obsession of the Tory Right, and a respectful but differentiated approach to the US. It’s certainly a different prospectus to Labour’s approach in government, but it’s no less pragmatic.
If that’s what One Nation Foreign Policy looks like, it suits me fine.