More than ever before, Britain needs to redefine its relationship with the rest of the world. Today, across the globe, competition between nations is again on the rise; conflict is ever-present in many parts of the world; the threats to our country are diverse and very real; technological change is transforming the nature of our economy and society; and climate change is intensifying the human as well as the physical challenges we all face. The pandemic threatens to accelerate some of these trends while also illustrating how essential international cooperation is to tackle global problems.
Britain faces these complexities from a new position outside of the EU. Additional challenges have been created by the way the government has negotiated Brexit. It is unclear, for example, what Britain’s future relationship with the EU will be on foreign policy, defence and security issues. And what will be the long-term implications of our new trading relationships? The election of Joe Biden as US President has already given a huge boost to multilateralism and international co-operation, and his election makes it essential that Britain is fully engaged in the development of a new and positive international agenda. But what we see from Boris Johnson’s government is hesitation and confusion.
The government’s rhetoric around Brexit has given the impression to many that the government believes that the future of our country lies in attempts to somehow recreate an imperial past. Johnson’s willingness to allow himself to be seen as a kind of British Trump has only reinforced this impression. A year ago, the UK Prime Minister promised to publish an integrated review on security, defence, development and foreign policy. This would, we were told, “define Britain’s place in the world”. Despite the fine words, this supposedly fundamental review has hit all kinds of problems within government, with infighting between departments and decisions taken outside of the review and without consultation.
But at long last we have now been promised that the review will be published in March. Obviously, it is impossible to predict precisely what the review will contain. However, it is very likely to fall far short of the Prime Minister’s lofty promises. The integrated review is supposed to provide a coherent framework that can inform Britain’s international policies, but the government appears to have made up its mind on key issues before the strategy was written.
First, it has collapsed the highly respected Department for International Development into the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, downgrading the status of development and reducing transparency and scrutiny.
Second, the government has decided to break both a cross-party consensus and its own manifesto commitments to sharply reduce development aid, which is not only harmful to the world’s poor, but also undermines Britain’s standing in the world.
Third, the government announced significant increases in defence expenditure and the reorientation of defence priorities. This comes after ten years of consistent cutbacks and, while there was a clear case for undoing what the Prime Minister himself has called a ‘decade of retreat’, it is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. The government has failed to indicate how this money will be used to address any new priorities. The strategic priorities should be set out first, and then the budget allocated, not the other way round.
These examples illustrate why we fear the integrated review is likely to be a disappointing document, full of muddled thinking and retrospective justifications. In other words, in spite of the integrated review, Britain will likely still not have a coherent framework for the county’s relationship with the world and Britain’s role within it.
With the world in flux and the government adrift, it is therefore vital for the Labour Party as the official opposition to define and set out how it wants to see the country moving forward. Labour needs to establish the ‘framework’ for Britain’s relations with the world that would guide it when in office. That is why the party has begun a fundamental and cross-team review of all aspects of its approach to international affairs.
The aim of the review is to produce a ‘vision’ of Britain’s international role that will underpin the development of specific policies relating to defence, development, security, the environment and trade. Taking inspiration from what Robin Cook did in the 1990’s, we need to set out a framework for those areas of policy so that we have a firm base on which to build.
Over the next 18 months, led by the Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Office team, Labour is holding an unprecedented review of all aspects of its international policy. A number of virtual discussion workshops have already been held, and many more are planned. Experts and stakeholders from a wide range of think tanks, academic institutions and civil society are contributing to our deliberations and written opinions are now being invited.
But this fundamental review is not a top-down exercise. An excellent discussion has already been held with the party’s international policy commission and others are planned. We are also intending to visit the nations and regions of the UK, virtually if necessary, to ensure that we hear as broad a range of views as possible and shape a policy that works for the whole country.
Following our consultations, we will then crystallise the views we receive into a clear, consensual vision of Britain’s role in the world. This vision will be based on the longstanding principles of the Labour Party – internationalism, respect for human rights, and upholding the rule of law – but it will go further and provide the foundations for detailed policies as we move closer to the next general election. The Labour Party is, and has always been, an internationalist party. This international review will take forward the party’s long-standing aspiration to create a better, more equal and more peaceful world.