“Britain can, and must, be a moral force for good in the world” – Starmer’s Fabian speech

Keir Starmer

Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s speech at the Fabian Society’s new year conference 2021.

Good morning. I think this is the fifth time that I’ve spoken at your new year conference. A lot has happened in that time. Two general elections, a referendum, and a couple of Labour leadership elections too!

In fact, this time last year I was rushing back to speak to you after the first leadership hustings in Liverpool. It seems another lifetime ago. Of course I wish we could all be here in person today… but I want to thank everyone at the Fabian Society for making this happen virtually today.

There’s no getting away from it: 2020 was an awful year. And 2021 hasn’t started any better. We’re in the darkest moments of the pandemic – 1,000 people are dying every day. Businesses are closed. Our high streets are empty. People can’t see their families or their loved ones.

This wasn’t inevitable. And it isn’t bad luck. What we’re seeing now is the consequences of the PM’s decisions during those crucial days in December. When he ignored the science and was so slow to act.

It’s a national tragedy. And we need a national effort now to get through this. But amid all the darkness there are two reasons to be optimistic.

First, the vaccine. Second, in four days’ time, Trump will no longer be President.

And it’s the second of those I want to talk about today. Because, this isn’t a normal transition of power from one President to another. The pictures on our TVs in the last few weeks make that clear. The outgoing President is in the middle of being impeached: charged with incitement to violence, no less. And the US is more divided than at any time I can remember.

Amid all that, this is a moment of huge optimism. Of hope winning out over hate. And it can also be a turning point. Not just in America but also for Britain’s relationship with the US, and for global politics.

Last week I set out Labour’s immediate policy priorities for this year. And I’m going to be saying much more in the coming weeks about Britain’s role in the world. I also want to thank Lisa Nandy – who’s speaking here this afternoon – for all the work she’s doing on this.

Today, I want to set out the principles that will drive us. First, Labour’s foreign policy will always be rooted in our values. We’re proudly patriotic. And we’re proudly internationalist too. I believe that after a decade of global retreat, Britain needs to be a far stronger and more confident voice on the international stage.

Because even before the pandemic we faced huge global challenges from the rise of authoritarianism whether in Russia or China; from nationalist, xenophobic populism whether in Europe, South America and the US as well as global terrorism, rising poverty, inequality and human rights abuse, plus, of course, the single biggest foreign policy challenge of our time: the climate emergency.

Faced with that, I don’t believe Britain should step back from our international responsibilities, pull up the drawbridge, retreat. Or to break our promises to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. It’s why I’m so angry – and why Britain should be so ashamed – that Boris Johnson has broken his manifesto promise to keep the 0.7% target for international aid.

That decision will harm Britain’s standing, reduce our global reach and of course it betrays our commitment to the world’s poorest. Instead, I believe Britain can – and must – be a moral force for good in the world. Self-confident, outward-looking and optimistic. Building global coalitions for social, economic and climate justice. Protecting global human rights. Championing international development. Trading with the world. And leading the fight against climate change.

That’s the vision I have of global Britain – a country that keeps our word and defends international law. But of course, we can only achieve that if we work with our global partners, if we strengthen international institutions – NATO, the UN, the WHO – and if we’re clear and confident about our values.

I care passionately about this. I was a human rights lawyer for 20 years and I worked in many countries around the world so defending human rights and international law will always be incredibly important to me. It’s also clear to me that all the major problems we face, including of course a global vaccine programme, can only be solved if countries work together.

Britain hosts the G7 this year. That’s a huge opportunity to shape the recovery, to bring countries together, in order to secure and rebuild our economy and to repair our climate.

Britain needs to seize this chance to lead in the world again. Just as Blair and Brown did over global poverty and the financial crisis, that’s what Britain can achieve.

But Boris Johnson has spent the last few years cosying up to people who don’t have Britain’s interests at heart – thumbing his nose at our friends, breaking international law and courting the idea that he’s “Britain’s Trump”.

As a result he’s on the wrong side of the times and he’s out of step with Britain’s interests. And just when Britain needs to be leading the global recovery Johnson has left us isolated from those we have stood shoulder to shoulder with over the past century.

Our job now is to repair that breach and to rebuild alliances. So you can see why I’m counting down the days to a new President in the White House. In particular, one who is also internationalist, multilateralist and wants to work together on tackling issues such as the climate emergency. In short, a President who is everything that we haven’t seen for the last four years.

Our relationship with the US matters to me enormously. I’m anti-Trump but I’m pro-American. And I’m incredibly optimistic about the new relationship we can build with President Biden.

America is our most important security ally, we have a shared history, we face shared challenges and so many of our citizens have families on both sides of the Atlantic. So it’s crucial that we also have a strong future together on everything from global security, climate change, aid and trade.

I believe that Britain’s national interest lies in once again being the bridge between the US and the rest of Europe. I believe we’re at our strongest when we link our two closest partners together, when we are confident in our shared values and when we work as one to achieve our common goals:

  • Strengthening the global economy
  • Delivering social justice and
  • Fighting climate change

I know that Labour can do that, to be pro-American, pro-European and internationalist. Looking out to the world, defending our values and building strong alliances. But after ten years of Conservative government, after Trump, and after Brexit, it’s clear that both parts of that bridge need urgent repairs.

First, this government’s relationship with the incoming administration won’t be helped by how close Boris Johnson and his cabinet were to President Trump.

Remember in May 2018 when Boris Johnson said that Trump should be candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize? He wasn’t a backbencher then or a columnist. He was Foreign Secretary.

Of course, Michael Gove went to Trump Towers to do a fawning interview and the Defence Secretary – Ben Wallace – gave an interview just a few weeks ago saying how he would “miss” President Trump.

Personally, I don’t think that’s how you show how pro-American are you, stand up for our national interest or defend British values. And it is certainly isn’t my idea of how to build alliances.

And then there’s the second part of the bridge we need to rebuild: with the rest of Europe. I’ve spent the last three conferences here talking about Brexit so I’m not sure you want to hear too much about it again! But I do want to say this.

We have left the EU – that issue is now settled – but we will always be European and I, and the Labour Party, will always be an internationalist party. We can now write a new chapter with our European friends and partners and build on the deal that’s been agreed.

I want that to be a close economic relationship rooted in our values, based on high standards and with protections for businesses, for working people and the environment. Of course, Boris Johnson will never do that. He wants something completely different from Brexit. To deregulate, to lower standards, to slash rights.

And we’re already seeing that workers’ rights are at risk. The 48-hour week and the working time directive could be ripped up. Of course that would break clear and repeated promises by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. But when has that stopped them?

Labour and the trade union movement will fight this tooth and nail. We’ll always stand up for workers’ rights and environmental protections. And we’ll make the case that a strong, close relationship with Europe is still possible. Not as members, but as partners, and that Labour would build that in government. Breaking down barriers to trade for our businesses and protecting rights for working people.

These are incredibly turbulent times in British and global politics. But there is cause for optimism. And I know that Labour can set a new path for this country – patriotic, internationalist and rooted in our values.

Boris Johnson has left us isolated and alienated from our allies but I know Labour can rebuild both parts of that bridge: working closely with a new US President, building a strong relationship with Europe, and making Britain – once again – a moral force for good in the world.

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