What does One Nation Foreign Policy look like? – The Douglas Alexander interview

17th December, 2013 10:54 am

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.

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  • swatnan

    Your guess is as good as mine. Britain’s role is in a Strong Europe, a Storng Britain in a strong Europe. and not going it alone. And Douglas doesn’t mention that at all.

    • BillFrancisOConnor


      Sorry Swatnan bad spelling infuriates me. Wish it didn’t.

      • Steve Stubbs

        When I type on here there is a spell checker underlining what it thinks is wrong and offering corrections. Isn’t that standard?.

        • treborc1

          Nope it’s not but, it does not matter does it, I actually type with a pointer attached to my right hand because my fingers are so badly damaged now because of nerve damage, only one person picked me up on here about a spelling mistake.

          Says I think more about the person who tells others about spelling, then it does anyone else.

        • JoeDM


          • Steve Stubbs

            I am using Firefox so I suppose the spell checker is coming from that then. Personally I don’t mind miss-spelling, it’s swearing and personal abuse that gets me (I make an exception for Cameron and Balls, ‘cos they deserve it.)

      • Bik Byro

        That’s because you’re a narrow-minded irritating little troll who nitpicks at typos and with nothing of any substance to add to the debate.

  • Steve Stubbs

    Why are all political parties so against the idea of asking the people whether we should be part of the EU?

    We have Clegg saying no referendum despite his manifesto commitment to have one, (no suprise there ), Cameron saying only after a negotiation which we all know is not going to happen on any significant issues, and Milliband who is still fence-sitting.

    When I voted in 1973 it was to join a single market. I would at least like to be asked if I want to join an ‘ever closer political union’.

    • treborc1

      I did think the Tories were going to give a vote, sadly they are now running around the bush so to speak.I suspect New Labour and the Tories now know it’s not a vote they would win or would take some winning, sadly since Bloom UkIP are now pretty damaged.

    • Bik Byro

      Exactly. There is a word for asking people what they want and then accommodating their wishes. It’s called democracy.

    • EricBC

      The answer to your question I think might go like this:

      1.Time period before a referendum would be very unsettling for currently and investment. And as vote might be for withdrawal, better not to have a vote.

      2. All parties recognise that in the long-term federalism is essential in order to match up to other major powers in economics and production.

      All UK parties agreed to the Maastricht Treaty which opens with:
      ‘to adopt by common accord the amendments to be made to the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community with a view to the achievement of political union and with a view to the final stages of economic and monetary union.’

      The UK political class is federalist. They just do not like saying so because there is so much opposition to the idea.

      • EricBC

        currently – should be currency

  • Martinay

    Nice policy. But it’s hard to discern a ‘One Nation’ flavour in this interview.

    The principal connotation of ‘One Nation’ is action against gross inequality. Globally this translates into action on infrastructure, economic development, innovation, trade, health and education globally.

    But Ferguson does not stray beyond media obsessions on the US, EU and Iraq. Pity.

    • treborc1

      I’m still trying to find out what the hell one nation means really, I was just about getting my head around Blue labour when they dyed it Purple.

      • JoeDM

        It probably is as meaningful as “Big Society”. After all, both Labour and Conservative have “modernised” themselves over the past 20 years.

        LibLabCon – there is no real fundamental difference, just the bickering tribes arguing over the detail.

        • Doug Smith

          “bickering tribes arguing over the detail.”

          Very true.

          I find that ‘detail’ usually translates as ‘ministerial limousines’.

        • leslie48

          Says a gullible tabloid reader in the public bar -but you sir should know better. Labour is not Neo-Liberal, elitist schools, anti-NHS or very anti-state; is more Sweden and Denmark than unequal America & would help technology and infrastructure and be more one nation focused beyond the yes, very comfortable, busy ‘property bubble’ M25 area.

      • Holly

        Labour tell us all what to do
        We comply like good little ‘one nationers’.
        If that does not work, Labour will make up laws to make sure we do…
        Take houshold bins as to how micromanaged we would be – fines/refusal to empty the bin stuff.
        It sounds like heaven, but forcing builders to build, forcing companies to charge what the politicians think ‘fair’, and the public feeling ‘forced’ to obey, or else, is going to go down like a lead balloon.

        However it is ‘gift wrapped’ it will be a nightmare, end up costing a fortune to employ the jobsworths to enforce it, pay the informers to grass on folk, and cause so much disharmony it will be hell.
        Expensive hell at that.

        We are not programmed to live like North Koreans. We are not programmed to think ‘one nation’, or the ‘big society’.
        We co-operate together as a nation already, and have done for decades before Blair, Miliband or Cameron came on the scene, shoving THEIR idea of how we should live together down our collective throats….
        We hate it!
        Well I do anyway.

        • Doug Smith

          “We are not programmed to live like North Koreans.”

          Tell that to the U.S.’s National Security Agency and the U.K. branch known as GCHQ.

          • Holly

            Your comment backs up what I said.
            We are not programmed to live like that, we do not like it, yet some of it is needed to keep us safe and to stop all the nasty personal stuff, that eventually, if unchecked, does the individual sending out the vile stuff, as well as the individual receiving it, no mental good at all.

            Even I have noticed that after a while my comments get ‘nastier’ and more sarcastic/personal, the trick is staying true to your personality/character and not getting ‘sucked in’ to the nasty/vile side of things….If you know what I mean.
            Even when replying to something nasty.

            My main point was, that for Miliband to achieve what he plans, WE (anyone not in government) will have to comply, which goes against how we think.

            I have just got my head around the fact that I can clear the pavement outside my home, without fear of court action…Mind you, last year I did use a tremendous amount of salt/grit…Just in case.

        • BillFrancisOConnor

          What Party do you like? Bloom UKIP, BNP, National Front, Nazi Party? I think we should be told.

  • markmyword49

    So no change then over Foreign Policy. It’s going to remain the same as it’s been since the middle 1950s regardless of which party forms the government. The administration will always look first across the Atlantic to get the nod from there. It will stand apart from Europe. It will always take the side of Israel in any confrontation in the Middle East. Africa is a sideshow not worth any real effort (perhaps they ought to ask why China is spending so much time using “soft power” there?). China and the Far East needed long term diplomacy but what they got and will continue to receive are the politics of the Imperialist megaphone.
    A waste of effort expecting Labour to come up with a different policy to the status quo. That died with Cook!!!!!

  • leslie48

    Our position on Syria was regrettable- we sat on our hands after a war crimes dictator gassed many 1000s of children and civilians in gross violation of international law. Moreover the ongoing 2 to 3 year Syrian civilian death toll of this conflict and the ongoing massive millions of refugees problem indicates a lack of meaningful ‘internationalism’ unlike US, France and Denmark who were prepared to back action. At the end we are either ‘Little Englander’s’ or we are true socialist internationalists doing something about brutal oppression as is the Syrian position. We have been impotent.

    • EricBC

      We do not have the power to do anything about Syria. What do you suggest?
      The Arab Gulf countries have the money to provide for all the refugees needs but the world should look to us?

      We have limited resources. Sometimes there is nothing that can be done.
      We could of course place a levy of £50 on every British holiday flight to pay for refugee care. Or raise fuel duty on cars? What do you think we should do?

      We killed thousands upon thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan. That
      is what happens when we do things.

      • leslie48

        We do have influence and power and Foreign Secretary William Hague has tried to use it. I am not a Tory but on some things they have been morally correct to push the Syrian issue; the new Lefty anti- war types lost their moral compass and thought looking the other way was somehow morally right ; it was not as all evil tyrants have to be confronted and their citizens saved especially close to Europe. Armies liberated concentration camps and I know that’s a different era but ‘inaction’ does not a better world make.

        Sorry, your other comments on Afghanistan suggest great ignorance about why the allies went there and how they have helped in the battle against Taliban terrorism.

        • Doug Smith

          Afghanistan is a politicians war. We are only there to save the reputations of the politicians who committed us to an on-going disaster.

          At first we were there to destroy the presence of Al Qaeda (the group Labour’s interventionists want to support in Syria).

          Then we were there in support of women’s rights (the re-introduction of stoning to death as a punishment for adultery was recently discussed in the Afghanistan parliament).

          Then we were there on a nation building mission (in June of this year the BBC reported that many areas of the country are under Taliban control).

          Then we were there to combat the drugs trade (in November of this year the BBC reported that opium production was at a record level).

          Now politicians have given up offering any explanation for our presence, preferring to focus on imminent withdrawl.

          But only the first of these objectives has been achieved and that was achieved quite quickly. Yet Cameron has just announced ‘mission accomplished’. If only our LibLabCon politicians had been brave enough to admit their mistakes earlier.

    • Doug Smith

      “the Labour Party in the UK more or less looked away”

      Totally untrue. Miliband backed military intervention provided it was legal. It was Cameron who, as Mark points out, threw in the towel.

  • EricBC

    1. Seek condominium agreements for the Falklands and Gibraltar.
    2. Seek to give up Permanent Member status in the Security Council.
    3. Abandon the vain and self-important ‘punching above our weight fantasy.’

    Britain is no longer of any special importance. We live in a multi-polar world. All we have achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan is the destruction of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and the polarisation of relations between the West and the Muslim world. And for that Labour politicians should be deeply ashamed and remorseful. Including you Alexander!


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