Opinion

Why the Westminster establishment cannot deliver an ethical foreign policy

30 Mar 2021 5 minutes Read
Trident submarine. Picture by BodgerBrooks (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Tane Rogers

There was a great deal of talk about ‘Global Britain’ after the 2016 referendum as Boris Johnson and Theresa May had spent the year reciting largely meaningless phrases such as ‘outward focused’ and ‘confident’. But the values an ‘independent United Kingdom’ would pursue globally were murky at best.

The government recently unveiled its major foreign and defence policy review, giving the public a better understanding of Britain’s major global commitments. Under the latest government plans, Britain’s stockpile of nuclear warheads is expected to rise for the first time since the Cold War. The abandoning of nuclear disarmament, bolstering the full-time forces, and halving the aid budget all give you some idea of the Conservative Government’s priorities.

But how would a Labour Government in Westminster do things differently in a post-Brexit Britain? Well not much according to its latest commitments.

Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey pledged his party’s ‘unshakeable’ commitment to the Trident nuclear programme and to the NATO military alliance, ignoring CND published research which reveals 83% of Labour voters support a “total ban on all nuclear weapons globally”.

In the House of Commons, Keir Starmer has questioned Boris Johnson’s decision to continue selling arms while halving aid to the Yemen where sixteen million people are dying of starvation. Starmer expressed his desire for Britain’s foreign policy to have an ethical dimension, and pledged a “review of all UK arms sales” and to make Britain “a force for international peace and justice”.

Similar commitments were made during campaigning for the US Presidential Election when Joe Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are”. After his inauguration, there was a ‘re-shifting’ of policy and so far there have been no sanctions, travel bans or asset freezes imposed. It would be unfair to say US policy has not toughened toward Saudi Arabia but it should come as no surprise that the poetry of the campaign trail often ignores and simplifies the underline strategic prose steering nations’ foreign interests.

Optimistic

Since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, Britain has become deeply embedded in US military action, casting itself as a rule-breaker rather than a responsible actor that respects and upholds international law. The UK ignored the UN’s high court and UN General Assembly resolution over its unlawful occupation of the Chagos Islands, with 116 votes in favour and only six against. At the heart of Britain’s refusal to accept Mauritian sovereignty over the islands is the presence of a joint UK-US defence facility that ‘helps keep people in Britain safe….’

If Labour and its current leader Keir Starmer found itself in Number 10, would there be a realigning of foreign policy? Would aid to Yemen increase? Would arms’ flows to dictators become a thing of the past? The lack of major clear difference between both parties stems from their unwavering belief that Britain is still a major global power with nukes propping up her withered looks and diminished authority on the world stage.

After Tony Blair led his party to victory in the 1997 general elections, New Labour launched its optimistic vision for an ethical foreign policy. Robin Cook’s tour of India marked the beginning of this ambitious agenda and during the trip it was reported Cook had offered to mediate the dispute between Pakistan and India along the Kashmir border, sparking outrage from the Indian Prime Minister who called Britain a “third rate power”.

It was clear to many observers that there was a disjuncture in the way Britain perceived its role on the world stage, and how the rest of the world sees it. Cook was forced to back peddle and denied even having a private conversation on the subject. It seemed New Labour’s ethical foreign policy was off to a shaky start. Cook’s approach had revealed, no matter how well-intentioned, Britain was caught in an awkward position. On the one hand, it positioned itself as an ethical actor and promoter of human rights, but one foot was still stuck in the transactional embrace of despots and kleptocrats.

Vested interests

The latest decision by UK Government to increase the nuclear warhead stockpile reflects the problem at the heart of decision-making in Britain’s politics. Scotland and Wales, even the views of the English public who are opposed to the nuclear program, simply do not matter to the Westminster establishment.

The trident nuclear programme alone totals 6% of the entire defence budget, its annual renewal cost of £2.5bn, or £50 million per week, is the equivalent spent in schemes such as Income Support, Statutory Maternity Pay, and Carers allowance.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru firmly believe that holding weapons of mass destruction is an exorbitantly expensive and dangerous endeavour and one that is totally unnecessary, but Westminster has gone ahead and laid the groundwork for the approval of a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons.

Until the people of Wales and Scotland have a truly independent voice, their vision and virtues, the hopes of future generations will always be secondary to the vested interests at the heart of Whitehall and Westminster.

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