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21 Apr 2023

Role in the World

Tom Howe analyses Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy’s vision for a Labour foreign policy that sees ‘Britain reconnected’, examining the extent to which it would represent a departure from the current government’s approach.

In a pamphlet recently published by the Fabian Society, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, provided further detail for his vision of ‘Britain Reconnected’. The phrase, first coined in a January speech at Chatham House, signifies Lammy’s ambition to ‘take back control’ –  mentioned directly in the speech and pamphlet – and deliver ‘security and prosperity at home’.

The 44-page document begins with a familiar assessment: the world confronting the UK is one of growing geopolitical competition, with states weaponising their interdependencies in a manner which collapses the boundary between foreign and domestic policy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent weaponisation of energy supplies is emblematic of such trends.

Lammy suggests that responding to this world requires a repurposed and revitalised Foreign Office. Consequently, a Labour-led Foreign Office would work under a new mission statement designed around five goals in the areas of security, prosperity, climate, development and diplomacy.

While not quite at the level of Robin Cook’s foreign policy with an ethical dimension, values still appear to inform significant components of Lammy’s approach to foreign policy. Indeed, where New Labour made expansive commitments to promote liberal values, human rights, and democracy, Britain Reconnected is more restrained. Key goals include promoting the rule of law and upholding the international system.

This framing seeks to contrast Labour’s vision with the Conservative’s post-Brexit foreign policy, which, Lammy argues, has left Britain disconnected. He draws attention to the fractious state of Johnson-and-Truss-era relations with Europe, alongside actions like the cut in official development assistance, spending aid domestically on the asylum system, and axing the BBC World Service.

To redress these issues, Lammy suggests several substantive areas where a Labour approach would be quite different to the current government.

For instance, on development, Labour would produce a new strategy that rejects the government ‘aid for trade’ approach, with Lammy suggesting in the pamphlet Q&A that he would like to see a return to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid in the first term of a Labour government.

On climate, the UK would enact a Clean Power Alliance and push for climate action to be recognised as the fourth pillar of the UN. While on diplomacy, Labour would push for a UK-EU security pact and create a Transatlantic Anti-Corruption Council.

In the pamphlet and Q&A, Lammy stressed the need to assess the fiscal climate when entering office before making firm commitments. Nevertheless, he suggests that Labour should be trusted based on the record of previous Labour governments. To this end, there are many approving mentions of New Labour’s international relations record.

Particularly notable are the references to Labour’s record on defence – including the 20% increase in spending between 1997-2010 – which, alongside 18 mentions of NATO, seem intended to demonstrate that an incoming Labour government can be ‘trusted’ on defence and security. No doubt these references were included to distinguish the internationalism of Starmer’s Labour Party from that of Corbyn’s.

However, it’s less obvious how distinct Labour’s foreign policy would be from the current government’s approach. Indeed, the parties are closer than the pamphlet would suggest.

While Lammy’s critiques of Global Britain’s ‘post-imperial hubris’ (i.e., based on a particular interpretation of history that means the UK should play a ‘leading international role’) are understandable and well-versed, the phrase has rather faded into the background. The rhetoric in the recent Integrated Review Refresh, which includes no meaningful mentions of Global Britain, was much less bombastic than its predecessor.

Moreover, while Labour will want to ensure that Rishi Sunak’s government is associated with the previous Conservative administrations, the move away from adversarial Global Britain-era relations with the EU through developments such as the Windsor Framework and improved relations with the likes of France undercut some of Labour’s key criticisms.

As things stand, there’s increasing convergence between the parties, pointing to an apparent re-emergence of the bi-partisan approach that has typically characterised British foreign policy.

Regarding China, Labour’s ‘compete, challenge, and cooperate’ proposal is analogous to the Government’s plan to ‘protect, align, and engage’. That said, Labour’s ambition is to take a harder line with plans to legally declare the crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang a genocide.

However, as Sam Hogg noted, this would undermine Labour’s plans to cooperate with China, given the obligation to punish those who commit genocide under the Genocide Convention.

The position on the wider Indo-Pacific is, at times, unclear. Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey has previously described the government’s ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ as an unrealistic vanity project that undermines the UK’s commitment to Europe, and Lammy’s pamphlet also criticises the rhetoric of the tilt – leading some to suggest that Labour will reduce the UK’s focus on the region. Such suggestions appear wide of the mark, though.

Both in the pamphlet and elsewhere, Labour has voiced its full support for the AUKUS agreement with Australia and the US and deepening defence co-operation with Japan. Given that these are two of the tilt’s most significant manifestations, we should expect an approach to the Indo-Pacific that is perhaps rhetorically reframed but otherwise similar.

To that end, Lammy identifies the need to be cognisant of how the UK’s history might influence its relationships with states in the Global South – an important development considering Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong’s comments that better understanding the past opens relationships in the present and future.

Yet, on the subject of history, Britain Reconnected displays a blind spot. For all the approving mentions of New Labour’s record, there is nothing on Iraq. As Arthur Snell recently pointed out, the Coalition’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was a defining moment of the twenty-first  century, undermining the rule of law and the international system that Britain Reconnected strives to protect.

This is not to say that whenever Labour talks about international relations, it needs to discuss Iraq. But, where Labour politicians stress the importance of history, the rule of law, and the international system, reticence on the subject is myopic given the lasting damage to Britain’s image.

Global Britain highlighted the dangers of sloganeering foreign policy. The danger for Britain Reconnected is that it risks falling into a similar trap as it sets up rhetorical binaries (e.g., Indo-Pacific vs Europe) that introduce contradictions (e.g., critiquing ‘aid for trade’ while suggesting international development will promote British jobs) and blind spots that undermine its overall coherence.

By Tom Howe, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe. 


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