David Davis: The Covid public inquiry should open in October, be held in two stages – and prepare for the unexpected

26 Mar

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

While the dedicated staff of our NHS and public services have managed superbly under extreme pressure, it is clear that mistakes have been made during the Coronavirus crisis.

No, let me rephrase that piece of Blairite prose. We have made mistakes. The whole British ruling class. Government, advisers (scientific and otherwise), Whitehall, the lot. And not just this Government, the previous one, and the ones before that.

So it is essential that lessons are learnt. Not just by this Government, but by future governments as well.

So we must establish a public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic.

Needless to say, the architects of our strategy throughout the crisis are nervous about the implications for them, and unsurprisingly they are saying “Yes, but not yet.” Not before the next election, or not before they retire, or move on to their next job.

Unfortunately, that will not do. The principal aim of the public inquiry is not recrimination about the past, it is preparation for the future. Pandemics come out of an apparently clear blue sky, or seem to. They are a peculiar class of threat, one whose eventual arrival is certain, but whose timing is entirely unpredictable.

The sloppy thinkers in Whitehall tend to imagine that if it is going to happen in the next 20 years, the most likely time is in about ten, so we have time to prepare for the next one. They are wrong. There is an approximately equal chance of a new pandemic in every year. There are “wet-market” style interfaces between wildlife and urban populations in Asia, Africa, and South America, and as the urban populations expand there are new opportunities for zoonotic pathogens jumping species all the time.

As public health services expand, depending too much on antibiotics, the risk of new drug resistant bacteria continues. It is probably only a limited time before we have a really virulent strain of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, for example. We do not know whether the next threat will be bacterial, viral or fungal. We do not know whether it will be transmitted by air, by touch, or in our food. All we know is that there will be another pandemic at some entirely unspecified time in the future.

So we need to get a move on with the inquiry, and start as soon as possible. Of course the inquiry must be thorough, and must thoroughly review what went right and what went wrong in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. The public will expect it, and the Opposition will demand it. But the most important thing is that we learn the lessons and develop the template for the next crisis as soon as possible.

What is different from other inquiries is that there is a vast amount of data to design this rapid template for pandemic management, and most of it comes from abroad. Although we have had a spectacular success with our vaccination programme, and a lesser but important success with the RECOVERY programme (that delivered dexamethasone as a valuable therapy), the majority of the most successful strategies were in other countries, most obviously in East Asia.

There is a vast amount of data to evaluate all the national strategies and operational arrangements. There are reasonably accurate data on mortality, infection, recovery and excess other deaths on a daily basis for virtually every country in the world. Similarly there are accurate economic impact assessments available. Along with the genetic mutation data this allows us to track very accurately how the disease travelled, grew, was suppressed and was treated, and assess the effectiveness of dozens of different preventive and therapeutic approaches.

This argues for a two-stage inquiry. The first stage, which could start in October, should report on what the best template is within one year, giving us the best possible chance of dealing with another pandemic whenever it appears. The second stage can (and will) take years, and should review what we did right and what we did wrong.

While such inquiries are normally run by judges, the first stage of the inquiry might be better led by a leading scientist, possibly a past President of the Royal Society or some similarly recognised intellect. What it should not be is chaired by anybody who was an adviser to the Government in the crisis.

So this week the Health Secretary – Matt Hancock – announced that his Department will be setting out plans for a new UK Health Security Agency. The Agency will plan for, prevent and respond to external health threats, such as pandemics.

This is a welcome development to better protect the UK, our population, and communities from future external health hazards.

However, the Government has chosen Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to head up the Agency. I am not at all sure that this is wise. This is not a reflection on Harries, who may be brilliant. However the Prime Minister himself accepts that there were a number of missteps in the crisis.

These missteps taken by the Government were often based on questionable advice provided by the very same medical advisers who are now being handed the job of looking at what went wrong.

These public inquiries must be led in an unfettered way by an independent actor who is not consciously or unconsciously committed to the strategies that have failed in the past.

In due course the inquiry will review the errors that have plagued some of our Covid strategy. Before the current Government gets too nervous it should realise that many of the errors are rooted in the past, long before the current Prime Minister came to power, and often before the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government government took over in 2010.

So the advisory arrangements – SAGE et al – date back to the Blair years. They were first activated for the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009. They frankly do not work very well. The idea of dumping all scientific advice into one committee is a bit bizarre, the sort of thing that liberal arts dominated Whitehall might do. It can often become dominated by a single strong character with a speciality that is beyond many of the members, as happened with Neil Ferguson and his poorly constructed and opaque mathematical model at the beginning of the crisis.

Similarly the Whitehall structures that are supposed to cope with crises are pretty poor too. The best demonstrator of this was the Operation Cygnus pandemic preparation exercise that was run a few years ago. This so-called command post-exercise was positively harmful, because it persuaded Whitehall that it was ready for a pandemic when all it rehearsed were the coping mechanisms – how many body bags you need, and should you have a mass mortuary in Hyde Park – rather than what you would actually do to minimise deaths. This is a generic problem, not just applicable to pandemics. Their “worst case” Brexit preparation was pretty poor too.

Some of the deep-rooted problems come a little later. The Public Health England structures were largely a product of the Lansley reforms, and they too were visibly not fit for purpose. It was their poor leadership that meant that we failed to hit the target of 10,000 test a day before the end of March, while Germany comfortably hit 15,000 a day in mid March. That incompetence denied the Government the strategies that worked so well for Germany in the first wave.

Then of course there were many decisions made on the fly during 2020. Obviously many of these were wrong, notwithstanding Matt Hancock’s cheerfully optimistic gloss earlier this week. But the public, and frankly anybody with any sense, knows that any government was making decisions based as much on guesswork as on hard data, and the public are very tolerant of that.

The primary area where an inquiry’s criticism is likely to fall is poor strategic management in, for example, the upper levels of NHS management. While their staff were doing a brilliant job, I am not too sure that the decisions on, for example, the deployment of the Nightingales and the private sector hospitals were entirely sensible.

These are the sort of things that will be unpicked over a few years by the second stage of the inquiry. The data will be complex and sometimes hard to establish, so it will take a significant time to resolve. Since it may be commenting on the decisions of individuals it is right that it takes its time. But that is all the more reason to start soon.

So my message to Boris Johnson is do not fear this inquiry: grasp this nettle soon, get the actionable insights quickly, reform and prepare accordingly, and then allow the commission to take its time doing a detailed inquiry over several years. History will judge you well for doing the right thing on this.

Daniel Hannan: Ignore the Europhile sneers. Joining the Pacific bloc marks the rebirth of Global Britain.

3 Feb

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

She’s unstoppable, that Liz Truss. The epidemic has put most Whitehall ministries in damage limitation mode, but the Department of International Trade is on a roll, signing 62 free trade agreements to date – plus, obviously, the deal with the EU itself.

Those who can’t bear the thought of Brexit succeeding are, naturally, scoffing. These deals, they say, are largely replicas of what we already had as EU members. Their new line of criticism is, I suppose, an improvement on the position that they took until 12 months ago, namely that we would barely be able to strike any deals at all.

But it’s still not true. Many of the “rollover” treaties go further in small ways: more generous quotas, fewer restrictions. True, these liberalisations are chiefly tokens of intent. But that intent is real. With limited capacity, our priority has been to negotiate new FTAs – that is FTAs with countries where the EU currently has no trade deals, such as Australia and the United States.

Where there are serviceable existing arrangements, we have tended to say, in effect: “Let’s leave things roughly as they are for now, and agree to come back to it next year”. Even in these cases, though, we have often taken the opportunity to go further. The UK-Japan deal, for example, is more comprehensive when it comes to services and cross-border data flows than the EU-Japan deal, even though the latter had only just entered into effect.

This week, Britain took a momentous step when it applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade zone comprising Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Again, many Europhiles are sneering. Joining a Pacific trade pact, they say, defies geography. And it is of course true that Britain is not a Pacific country (other than in the technical sense of owning the Pitcairn islands). But we have exceptionally close links to a number of CPTPP members. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Canada are common law, English-speaking nations. So, to a degree, are Brunei and Malaysia.

One of the arguments for Brexit was that, in the internet age, cultural proximity trumps physical proximity. That argument is stronger now than it was a year ago. The lockdown has habituated us to using Zoom or Teams for important discussions. When travel returns, it is hard to imagine that business people will be as ready to hop over to Düsseldorf for the day to make a presentation. If you’re online, Rotorua is no further than Rennes – indeed, nearer in the sense that it shares your language, legal system and accounting methods.

Another argument for Brexit was that, by global standards, the EU was a slow-growth region. That argument, too, is now looking stronger. Although we talk of the pandemic as a global event, the truth is that it hit Europe much harder than Asia, Africa or the Antipodes.

But the biggest difference between the EU and the CPTPP is that the latter is a trade agreement rather than a state-in-the-making. Its members simply seek to maximise their prosperity through greater specialisation and exchange. Joining the CPTPP does not involve making budget transfers to its poorer regions, or accepting the supremacy of its laws over our parliamentary statutes, or adopting a common flag, passport or anthem. Nor does it require a member to alter its standards on non-exported goods and services.

Viewed purely as a trade pact, the CPTPP is preferable to the EU because it elevates mutual recognition over harmonisation. The essence of the CPTPP is that its members agree to refrain from certain actions that would restrict free commerce. It is perfectly possible for CPTPP members simultaneously to have ambitious trade deals with each other and with the EU – as, for example, Japan and Canada do. On services and on professional qualifications, CPTPP uses a “negative list” approach. In other words, it assumes that whatever is legal in one state is legal in all the others unless it is expressly exempted in the treaty.

It is fair to say that the CPTPP is wide rather than deep. It does not go as far as, say, the Australia–New Zealand deal, which is arguably the most advanced on the planet. But, as Australia and New Zealand demonstrate, a deeper trade deal can nestle within a broader one.

Our aim should be to negotiate a deal similar to that which Australia and New Zealand enjoy with one another – assuming that is, that our protectionists in DEFRA and the NFU will let us. We should, in other words, seek both to participate fully in the CPTPP and, under its auspices, to secure even more ambitious agreements with the countries closest to us in terms of GDP per capita and regulatory interoperability – namely, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore.

Indeed, New Zealand, Singapore and Chile – three of the world’s greatest free-traders – are currently setting the pace when it comes to digital trade. If Britain peels itself away from the wary and watchful EU, which has never been comfortable with the free-wheeling nature of the internet, and joins these Hayekian states, it is likely to end up crafting standards on digital trade that every competitive country will want to adopt.

Finally, there is a geopolitical case for membership. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Pacific deal at the last minute opened the door to China which, three months ago, created a rival trade pact with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and all ten members of ASEAN.

My guess is that the Biden administration will want to reverse Trump’s mistake. After all, many of its leading members had been involved with putting the Trans-Pacific Partnership together in the first place under Obama. British membership of the zone, as well as being in itself a useful counterweight to Beijing’s ambitions in the region, will set the context for UK-US trade talks.

To sum up, then, our CPTPP application will boost jobs and growth, strengthen the Anglosphere, improve the prospects for a bilateral American deal, accelerate our pivot to the fastest-growing markets on Earth, and elevate Global Britain. Not bad. Not bad at all.

David Lidington: We have left the EU and there is no turning back. Here’s what our new relationship with Europe should look like.

29 Dec

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

Ursula von der Leyen’s tone was elegiac, Boris Johnson’s conciliatory. Their first public statements announcing that a deal had been agreed marked a significant shift in tone. Both leaders looked to a future in which the United Kingdom and the European Union could move beyond the fractious quarrels of the last four years and forge a new partnership in the months and years ahead.

The Commission President quoted T.S Eliot’s line that “…to make an end is to make a beginning”, while the Prime Minister spoke of how the United Kingdom would continue to be “culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically” attached to Europe. The following day, Michael Gove said that the deal would be “the start of a special relationship” between this country and the EU.

This isn’t about rejoining the EU. Even for someone like me – unrepentant at having campaigned to Remain back in 2016 – the prospect of revisiting in reverse all the agonies and divisions of the last four years is profoundly unappealing, as is the prospect of EU membership without the rebates or opt-outs we once enjoyed. The challenge for our country and for our fellow European democracies now is to work out new ways of working together to uphold values and defend interests that we share.

Every European country wants to address the climate emergency, disrupt and defeat terrorism and organised crime and resist efforts by Russia to subvert democratic values and institutions in our continent. We all want to see political stability in the Western Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa – and know from hard experience that civil war, ethnic conflict and corrupt or ineffective governance allow criminal networks and extremist doctrines to thrive.

The incoming US President values alliances and international institutions, but will also expect European allies not only to spend more on defence and security (where the UK is indeed setting an example) but to show political leadership in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and in Africa, and to contribute support in the Indo-Pacific region, which Joe Biden, like his recent predecessors, will see as the chief focus of United States strategic interest.

Our country remains a European power but one which, like France, also has global interests and a global outlook. We should not see a strategic partnership with the Member States of the EU and the EU institutionally as an alternative to “Global Britain” but as an important aspect of it.

It will take time for bruises to heal, but I’ve been struck by how, even during difficult, sometimes acrimonious divorce talks with the EU, the Prime Minister boosted Britain’s military contribution to the French-led counter-terrorist action in the Sahel and how, announcing the merger of the Foreign Office and DfID, he cited the Western Balkans and Ukraine as places where important interests were at stake.

On key global issues – climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement, Israel/Palestine – the Johnson government has chosen a position closer to the European mainstream than to the White House. The E3 of Britain, France and Germany has continued to work in partnership on geo-political challenges.

Over the next ten years, a United Kingdom outside the EU will need to renew and strengthen both its bilateral relationships with other European countries and its partnership with the EU collectively.

With national governments, this partly about finding a substitute for the regular contact between British Ministers and officials and their counterparts that for nearly 50 years, has taken place at and in the margins of Council of Ministers meetings. It wasn’t only the formal Council that mattered, but the breakfast, lunch or coffee with an opposite number from another country – or even just the quiet word in a corner about some issue.

Since we left the EU on 31 January this year, there’ve not been those same regular opportunities to get to know and do business with other European governments. We’ll need alternatives. It is good that the Government has signalled its intention to strengthen our diplomatic presence across Europe – but we should also consider formalising arrangements for annual summits and joint ministerial meetings with different European countries, as we already do with France.

The UK will also need over time to develop a strategic partnership with the EU as an institution. This is partly because we shall want to discuss issues that under the EU treaties fall to the Union collectively to decide and partly too because the reality is that even the big EU members spend a lot of effort trying to shape a common EU policy approach. The UK will need to operate at both national government and EU level just as the Americans, Swiss and Norwegians already do.

This is to a large extent already envisaged in the Free Trade Agreement, through the Partnership Council and its various sub-committees established to manage and monitor how the deal is implemented. As we go forward, UK policymakers will need to understand the debates within Member States and EU institutions on subjects like data transfer and privacy, and try from outside the tent to influence the outcome in a way that protects our interests.

The same is true about climate, a top-level priority for the Johnson government especially with the COP 26 summit scheduled for 2021. Should the UK’s planned emissions trading scheme be more or less the same as the EU’s? Will the UK’s requirements for green finance be accepted in the rest of Europe? Understanding each other’s positions and, where possible, working together on the global stage should work to our mutual advantage.

NATO will remain the cornerstone of Europe’s collective defence. The EU should not try to supplant or duplicate NATO’s work. Equally, NATO cannot do everything. There are both functional and geographical limits to NATO’s mission. In an age of hybrid conflict, not just military power but economic leverage (including sanctions), information, development spending and anti-corruption work – things that are more an EU than a NATO responsibility -also matter. Truth is, we shall need to work both bilaterally with individual governments and with the different international institutions.

Above all, we need to focus on the strategic picture. Throughout the world democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under pressure. Russia and China are increasingly assertive about the merits of their very different systems of government. The idea of a rules-based international order, fundamental to both our freedom and our prosperity, is being challenged. Criminal and extremist networks operate across national borders and are as internet-savvy as any legitimate business. Outside the EU, the United Kingdom’s interests impel us to find a new model of partnership with our closest neighbours and allies in Europe while at the same time reaching out to like-minded countries worldwide. Now is the time for the world’s democracies, in Europe and beyond, to stand together.

Michelle Donelan: The Government’s new Turing scheme will open up the world to British students

28 Dec

Michelle Donelan is Minister of State for Universities.

When things become too familiar, it can be comfortable to sit back and enjoy their benefits, never stopping to consider whether the old, established parameters still meet the needs of the present day. The thought of losing it becomes a wrench. Even if what is being offered in exchange is clearly better, the original has acquired a totemic nature that goes far beyond its present value.

Such can be the only explanation for the cries of dismay from some quarters that greeted the news last week that the UK government would be establishing a new global Turing scheme for students, following our decision not to continue participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme.

I can understand why some people feel this way. Many prominent commentators, newsreaders or academics may have used Erasmus, or perhaps their children or friends did. It is easier to imagine what you know, than to visualise the benefits of what is being brought in. However, the simple reality is this: if anyone was creating a student exchange scheme for Britain today, would they really settle for Erasmus+?

Why would we wish to limit an exchange programme to the EU, when the fastest growing, most vibrant and dynamic countries are increasingly found in Asia and Africa – not to mention our old allies in North America, Australia and New Zealand? Some forward-thinking universities have already established exchange programmes, and even campuses, outside of Europe, and I commend them for that, but they deserve our full and whole-hearted support, not exclusion from the Government’s principal funded scheme.

It is also the case, unfortunately, that Erasmus’s benefits went overwhelmingly to students who were already advantaged. The language barrier meant that it was very hard for students not already studying a modern foreign language to take part, to flourish at their chosen university and get the most out of the academic experience. A 2006 study found that of those taking part in Erasmus from the UK, 51 per cent were from families with a high or very high income.

In 2014-15, those with parents in managerial or professional occupations from the UK were taking part in Erasmus at a rate 50 per cent higher than those whose parents had working class jobs – and the gap was widening. Of course, no-one would wish to prevent such students from studying abroad; but where Government support is concerned, surely it should be about ensuring all students have a fair and equal shot at studying abroad or going on an exchange.

That’s why the Government’s new Turing scheme will explicitly target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country. It will be backed by over £100 million, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges, on apprenticeships, and in schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021.

The programme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme but it will include countries across the world and will deliver greater value for money to taxpayers. And it will be named after one of our greatest British scientists: Alan Turing, a pioneer of computing and cryptography, a hero of the Second World War and who himself studied abroad as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton.

Of course, none of this is to decry Erasmus+: undoubtedly, those who took part in the scheme benefited from it. However, the fact is that it is simply too limiting for the global Britain that we aspire to. Of the hundred best universities in the world in the QS World Rankings, only twelve are in the EU. If we have stayed with Erasmus+ it would have cost several hundreds of millions of pounds to fund a similar number of exchanges, not have been global in nature and continued to deliver poor participation rates for young people from deprived backgrounds.

In the future, we will see young people from Bolsover and Bishop Auckland studying in the Ivy League; entrepreneurs from Dudley and Derbyshire learning from the dynamic economies of Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia; and our best budding engineers from Hastings and Hartlepool inspired by world-leaders at MIT or the Indian Institute of Technology. The Turing scheme exemplifies the spirit of Brexit, opening up our opportunities, our hearts and our horizons to the whole world.

Imran Ahmad Khan: Now is the right time for the UK to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy

22 Dec

Imran Ahmad Khan is Member of Parliament for Wakefield and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Foreign Affairs.

The UK has seldom faced such an array of challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak damage to our lives and businesses. Brexit negotiations have uncovered numerous flaws in our institutions, our negotiating skills, and our knowledge of our closest neighbours. The Presidential elections in the US have re-sparked divisive domestic issues. A rising China and a revanchist Russia, both of whom seek to expand their sphere of influence, now present an alternative, illiberal, world order.

Despite these threats, the UK’s recent foreign policy has been marked by missed opportunities and withdrawal. The UK’s weak presence at Davos and the Munich Security Conference in 2020 sent a signal of disinterest. Foreign leaders from countries in Asia, South America and Africa have lamented British disengagement from issues. European leaders have also debated strategic autonomy in Berlin and Paris, while London has remained silent.

Britain has a chance to reverse this deficit. Brexit presents us with the opportunity to deploy new tools of statecraft in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. The recent surge in defence spending – £16.5 billion over four years – will rebuild our pared back military capability. Upcoming commitments in the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific point to new arenas for British influence. Bilateral relationships, although attenuated in some cases, remain strong, and cooperation with the Commonwealth on issues of importance is close.

Now more than ever, a coherent, holistic strategy is required that will unite and enhance our capabilities to advance Britain’s position in the world, her interests, and her values.

What does Britain want?

Her Majesty’s Government’s principle role is to ensure the security and prosperity of her citizens. The British people not only expect this, but recognise the UK’s moral duty to prevent atrocities against oppressed and persecuted peoples, and promote stability across the globe.

These objectives are only achieved through the construction and defence of a world in which Britain is a leading and respected authority. This position does not have to stem from seizing the trident of global power or ruling as a hegemonic power.

Rather, Britain can achieve this through working within a group of like-minded nations that understand our values which set the parameters of the world order. Where there is a hegemon, we ought to influence them. When Britain wants to ensure freedom of navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb, or a free trade agreement with Japan, it helps to be listened to, and for our advise to be carefully weighed upon by military and diplomatic powers.

A critical part of this strategy has relied on maintaining good relations with the US. For decades, we have striven, buoyed by cultural similarity and shared history. The character and extent of American power is changing rapidly and significantly. Our strategy must consider this.

Why must it be Britain?

The defence, maintenance and championing of British security and prosperity internationally is critical. Yet as the current international order comes under strain, questions are raised as to whether Britain should pour its efforts out upon the world stage, and indeed why.

There is a very simple answer – no one else will. The US faces domestic challenges. The special relationship with Washington has weathered worse, but President-elect Biden will likely be distracted with ensuring an economic and institutional recovery. The European Union presents itself as a putative world power, but significant challenges and internal divisions demonstrate some of its many flaws.

Regardless, authoritarianism and illiberalism does not go unopposed. France, in collaboration with Sahelian nations and the UN, leads the charge against terrorism in North Africa. Japan provides development funding across Asia. Australia has stood up to Chinese influence, and has matched their rhetoric with a major increase in defence expenditure.

These actions are predominantly motivated by national interests. It is clear that no one will defend and champion our national interests on our behalf. We must do so ourselves.

What should be done?

Britain cannot enforce the rules of the international order alone. Through acting as a contributing nation for multilateral groups with different geographical and operational remits, Britain can maximise its influence and capacity to achieve geopolitical objectives.

There are circumstances in which Britain would act as the leading authority. The Joint Expeditionary Force that brings together eight northern European nations under British leadership is an excellent example. In other cases, Britain would play the role as a principal lieutenant, supporting and enabling a partner nation to achieve a common objective. Appreciate how British mine countermeasure vessels supported US efforts in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El Mandeb.

Simply being a member of many organisations would improve British influence, providing us a greater understanding how other nations deploy their capabilities.

Our strength has always been as a convening power; we ought to accentuate it.

Using our leadership in the Joint Expeditionary Force to help France recruit more troops for Task Force Takuba, a pan-European special operations unit in the Sahel, would be one example. In turn, Paris may well help us convince Germany to take a stronger position against Iran, winning us plaudits in Washington.

Relationships like these are the very foundation of diplomacy and international strategy. As we forge our new path outside of the European Union, it is crucial that we fully understand and utilise this concept in order for Britain to position itself as the foremost, flexible, international power.

Our value should come not only from our military or economic strength, nor chiefly from our historic competencies, but rather because the UK has a unique capacity to act as a hub for dozens of overlapping webs of commitment, alliances and amity.

Such a policy would generate increased international political capital and create greater manoeuvring space for British diplomacy. Such space, and such capital, is sorely needed if we are to protect and promote our interests in an increasingly unstable century.

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “the international situation is now more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War.” Britain, for all its often reflexive pessimism, has many valuable assets it can use, and important interests it must protect. Now is the right time to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy, based on a cool appraisal of the international partnerships and associations which really count. A new strategy which reshapes old alliances, forges new connections, takes advantage of Brexit, and which focuses on key priorities.

Does cross-party support for the Mali mission signal a new consensus on deploying troops overseas?

11 Dec

Earlier this month John Healey, the Shadow Defence Secretary, wrote for this site demanding that the Government explain to Parliament its reasons for deploying 300 British troops to Mali as part of the ongoing United Nations peacekeeping mission there.

By good fortune, an official announcement about the decision was forthcoming the same day:

“300 UK troops have arrived in Mali as part of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, primarily drawn from the Light Dragoons alongside the Royal Anglian Regiment and supported by specialist trades from across the Armed Forces. The UK Task Force will provide a highly specialised reconnaissance capability, conducting patrols to gather intelligence and engage with the local population to help the UN respond to threats from violent extremism, and weak governance.”

In numbers terms this is a relatively small part of the 14,000-strong UN operation, although it is apparently providing a critical capability. Nor are the dragoons the first British troops on the ground in the Sahel. James Heappey, the Armed Forces Minister, pointed out in his statement to the House of Commons that we are also providing helicopter support to Operation Barkhane, the separate (and at over personnel, very substantial) French operation in the country.

But it is still significant. Heappey told MPs that “it is important to stress that deploying to MINUSMA does not come without risk”, and Healey that “Labour strongly support this commitment of UK troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we do so with eyes wide open to the risks they face”. There is a real danger of British casualties from this deployment, and it marks the first time since Iraq that the UK has committed ‘boots on the ground’ (except for special forces) to a new theatre.

Does this reflect a slow rebuilding of cross-party political will to deploy the Armed Forces? David Cameron tried to do so in Syria, but was prevented by Ed Miliband’s gamesmanship. Perhaps it is in recognition of the consequences of that decision that Healey stresses Labour’s recognition of the interwoven humanitarian, development, and security cases for deploying now.

Alistair Burt: Global Britain can also be European Britain

11 Nov

Alistair Burt is Chair of the Conservative Group for Europe’s Foreign Affairs Policy Group and former Minister of State at both the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.

Change is happening. Our relationship with Europe is changing, the United States is changing – Joe Biden will be the 46th President – the Foreign & Commonwealth Office has merged with Department for International Development, and the Government is undertaking the ‘Integrated Review’ of security, defence, development and foreign policy.

All of these changes, and others, provide the UK with unique opportunities to make a success of Global Britain. We must now be bold enough – and honest enough – to seize them.

During the summer, the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE) established a Foreign Affairs Policy Group, which includes experts in diplomacy, business and politics. Our first publication – Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit – will be launched today at a webinar with William Hague, David Lidington, the Chair of CGE, Tom Tugendhat and Neale Richmond, the Fine Gael TD. We will discuss the paper and the future of UK foreign policy.

The Conservative Group for Europe, formed over 50 years ago, has a long history of promoting constructive European engagement within the Conservative Party. But being a pro-European Conservative today inevitably means something different to being a pro-European Conservative in 1970, or even in 2016. Debates move on and times change – as does the CGE.

As the UK forges a new foreign policy, which both reflects and responds to the constantly evolving world, we should not be driven by ideology or old biases. In the realm of foreign affairs, if continuing cooperation and coordination with Europe is in our best interests, we should say so. Adopting a ‘go it alone’ approach, simply to prove a point, would be both wrong and dangerous, and I hear no serious talk of this in foreign affairs. But being outside of the EU will allow for even greater innovation and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking in how we approach foreign policy in the future.

A common theme running throughout the paper is that multilateral political cooperation with the EU, as well as the bilateral relations with its member states in other international fora like the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and NATO where we continue as full members, remains in the UK’s best national and independent interest.

In global affairs, UK and EU interests are often aligned. UK values have influenced Europe and vice versa, so in many ways these are intertwined in facing growing challenges, and our foreign policies will rarely be contradictory but more often mutually reinforcing. To make a success of Global Britain, we can also be ‘European Britain. We can achieve far more on the world stage by working collaboratively, as an equal partner, with our European allies. At the same time, we must seize new opportunities, think innovatively and engage in parts of the world previously overlooked.

Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit is a Conservative contribution to the ongoing discussions about the UK’s role in an ever changing and challenging world, where resources will be stretched, and priorities must inevitably be chosen. The paper covers the EU; the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and East and South Asia. It offers an overview of each region, the UK’s involvement and highlights potential future opportunities and dangers. Crucially, it offers practical and positive suggestions to help ‘Global Britain’ succeed.

It starts with Africa, the world’s fastest growing continent which has all too often been overlooked. The UK should seek more active engagement with Africa by extending its diplomatic outreach and having an Embassy or High Commission in every African state.

These need not be large or grand undertakings; success can be achieved with just a few staff. Likewise, we should consider appointing a dedicated Ambassador to the African Union – as have with the European Union – and further engage with regional groups such as Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS). Over the last 30-40 years British business has overlooked African markets – we have lost export market share to Asia, the Americas and even some European countries. Increasing our diplomatic presence and engagement will help foster growth in UK-African trade.

Moving from Africa to the USA, the paper considers the potential foreign policy implications of Joe Biden’s upcoming presidency, his stated aim to rebuild traditional links with Europe and the future role that the UK can play. As President, Biden is committed and experienced in collective international action. He will want a UK working closely with European partners an essential and vital ally, further enhancing the UK’s opportunity for global influence. However, if we were to turn our back on Europe, the UK risks being marginalised and losing its unique and historic role as a bridge between the US and Europe.

Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement on the first day of his presidency and with the UK hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) next year, an immediate opportunity exists to strength the UK-US relationship beyond trade and security, as the Prime Minister has noted. A good trade deal is obviously in both our best interests as a good foundation to our new relationship. It may not be without its concessions on both sides, but this might be best for the recovery of our economies post Brexit- some give now on both sides might be politic.

Turning our attention to Europe, the UK cannot be considered as simply ‘another third country’ by the EU, given our security surplus and P5 status. We should seek to establish structured cooperation on Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy matters.

This could be done by developing new structures, or reinventing older ones – like the Western European Union (WEU) – to help formalise foreign policy, defence and security dialogue between the EU and UK. We might also consider including certain non-EU NATO to develop wider European cooperation.

In the Middle East and North Africa, we should welcome the opportunity to use all our diplomatic skills in such a conflicted area: Libya, Yemen and the Middle East Peace Process should be a priority, as should be helping to de-escalate tensions surrounding Iran and the Gulf. The E3 working alliance with Berlin and Paris will remain crucial in the MENA region.

We should continue to work with partners who share our values to promote good governance, human rights, economic reform, ending corruption, and consent in government as the bases of stability. (We should work especially with states promoting religious tolerance, which has a resonance unappreciated in a largely secular UK and Europe. The absence of tolerance, and oppression of minorities, is one of the key recruiters for conflict.)

Defence policy is largely decided in European capitals – and not Brussels – meaning scope exists for future cooperation outside of the EU structures that we are leaving. With constrained resources, we must think carefully about our future defence capabilities. A suggestion in the paper for counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and stabilisation missions, promotes the idea of the UK focusing on high-end capability, including drones. This would allow us to worth collaboratively with Europe, supporting large deployable gendarmerie forces from countries such as France and Italy.

Whatever the future relationship between Britain and its allies – the US, its longstanding Commonwealth friends and, in particular, the EU – the British Government has some very tough choices to make. I hope this paper makes a timely contribution to the on-going discussions about Britain’s future foreign policy, and I wish the Government, and the UK, well as Global Britain.

Desmond Swayne: Nigeria is independent, but it still needs Britain’s help

1 Oct

Sir Desmond Swayne is a former International Development Minister, and is MP for New Forest West.

Today, Thursday October 1, is the 60th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from British rule. Celebrating Independence Day is important for any nation and it is no less the case for Nigeria which, having moved on from the days of British rule, has become one of the continent’s most prosperous, most populous and fastest growing nations. It is estimated that Nigeria will have a larger population than the United States by 2050 and it is already the largest economy in Africa.

This diamond jubilee of independence is of great national significance as it celebrates Nigeria’s past ties and collaborations, as well as future opportunities to build stronger connections and trading relationships in this post-Brexit new world. There will be many socially distanced celebrations to commemorate this occasion – the International Organisation for Peace and Social Justice will be holding an online thanksgiving prayer event for example.

However, beyond the joy of Nigeria’s Independence Day celebrations, this prayer event has another purpose, a more sombre purpose – and that is to highlight, mourn and campaign for further positive progress in the ongoing battle against the Boko Haram insurgents and other militia groups threatening the peace of the nation and the region. Since the year 2000, it is estimated that there have been almost 100,000 deaths in Nigeria caused by internationally recognised Islamist extremist groups who have been targeting both Christians and Muslims alike. This existential threat could well have wider global implications if we do not pray and act against it in a timely manner.

This continuing tragedy is underrepresented in the UK media and the scale of the crisis is sadly not fully recognised by all. I commend the hard work of organisations such as OpenDoors, HART, PSJ UK, CSW and others working to raise awareness of the situation in Nigeria.

There has also been some good news recently in this respect from the UK government. I fully support Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement that he is considering diverting billions of pounds of foreign aid to bolster security. This would be a welcome early benefit from the new FCO and DFID merger and a step forward for many of us, who have been looking for an official recognition of the links between aid, security and development.

It is my hope that the UK government will move forward with this and use the aid that we give to Nigeria – almost £300m in 2018 – to ensure that Nigeria does more to safeguard human rights and protect lives. This strategy to help the millions of innocent citizens in Nigeria, trapped between some of the deadliest terrorist organisations, Islamic State West Africa and Boko Haram, as well as unidentified militias and bandits has broad public support. For example, a recent ComRes poll showed that requiring foreign aid to Nigeria be targeted on measures that safeguard human rights received over 50 per cent approval and rose to almost 60 per cent support for sanctions on individuals found responsible for these human rights abuses.

Of course, our foreign aid can do great work in countries like Nigeria, building schools, revamping hospitals and updating agricultural equipment. However, we must also continue to ensure that this funding does indeed go to those in need and does not disappear into a labyrinth of wasteful bureaucratic machines. Moreover, without support for persecuted and targeted groups much of our aid projects could simply be destroyed or rendered useless by attacks.

If the UK government embraces this bolder approach to foreign aid we will be able to genuinely use our position on the world stage to make life better for those in need all around the globe.

With the world still in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, today’s series of celebratory events in Nigeria and in the UK will be slightly muted with its citizens looking to governments in both nations to do more and follow through on its verbal commitments. Governments have a responsibility to protect their people and I hope to be raising more celebratory glasses to toast when this is fully achieved in Nigeria.

Ryan Henson and James Rogers: The reformed Foreign Office has a fresh chance to counter China and Russia

21 Sep

Ryan Henson is Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Global Prosperity. James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society.

Earlier this month, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) merged into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), a new “superministry” charged with representing and projecting British interests around the world.

Appearing before Parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee this week, the Prime Minister said that within the new department, overseas aid should serve ‘the diplomatic, the political, and the values of the UK.’ We wholeheartedly agree, for we believe the UK must continue to be a force for good in the world.

Indeed, as the international system starts to experience profound geopolitical change – a shift that looks set to accelerate over the next decade – it is in all our interests that the integration of Britain’s foreign and development policy be a success.

According to Britain’s most recent national security assessment – The National Security Capability Review (2018) – the world is witnessing “the resurgence of state-based threats, intensifying wider state competition and the erosion of the rules-based international order”, which has made “it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats.” Likewise, the assessment also emphasised the detrimental impact of climate change.

Geopolitics can no longer be ignored. For the 700 million people who still live in extreme poverty – many in dysfunctional or failed states – will be the first to suffer as authoritarian, revisionist powers continue to expand their influence or if climate change accelerates.

Make no mistake: Russia and China have burst onto the international scene over the past decade. They are deeply authoritarian powers, and their vision of how the world should look is very different to our own. Both regimes see democratic values and liberal principles as dangerous to their own existence. Both seek to extinguish them.

This can be seen by Russia’s “non-linear” offensives in Ukraine and Syria. In Ukraine, the Kremlin has fermented civil war to prevent the country from opening up and moving closer towards the European Union and NATO. In Syria, Russia has engaged in the country’s decade-long civil war to boost its own position in the Levant and broader Middle East and prevent reformers from gaining in influence.

Meanwhile, China has weaponised international development with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as its geo-economic and geopolitical push into Africa and South America. Underpinned by a US$1 trillion budget over the next thirty years, China’s efforts through the BRI provide investment for developing countries, while seeking to capture their political elites so they support, or at least do not challenge, China’s broader international objectives. This has often been achieved through the establishment of so-called “debt traps”. By providing developing countries with loans they will never be able to repay, China is able to compel them, often by stealth, into dependency.

While China’s BRI could not be more different to Britain’s lifesaving overseas aid work, it may have had more impact. It is certainly more well-known. With the creation of its new world-facing superministry, the UK ought to strengthen its position as an effective force for good in the world.

While the FCDO should retain and entrench DFID’s lifesaving development expertise, it should also better ensure that Britain adapts to both prepare for, and combat, the emerging threats to the world’s most vulnerable people. If the UK is to stand up for them, it must also stand up for their right to determine their own destiny, free of the threat of climate change and interference from foreign progenates.

The FCDO would therefore do well to initiate an internationally recognised programme of its own – an “International Prosperity Initiative” – to provide an alternative to the “aid” agendas of authoritarian rivals. In practise, this would mean the UK continuing to lead the fight against preventable diseases. Over the past 20 years DfID has helped defeat Ebola in Sierra Leone, saved 6.2 million people from dying of malaria, and immunised 67.1 million more children against preventable diseases. The emergence and spread of Covid-19 only makes this work more important.

It would also mean continuing to support girls’ education, so that the next generation of women are more able to participate as equals in society. The FCDO could make girls in school safer by rapidly and significantly ramping up efforts to eliminate violence in schools, while supporting governance, taxation, and redistribution projects that will be essential to lifting the poorest women out of poverty.

At the same time, an “International Prosperity Initiative” would seek to revolutionise poverty alleviation by combating environmental degradation and promoting more inclusive, open, and responsive, democratic government. Britain could fund more efforts to develop green technologies and help spread them to developing countries, while boosting educational programmes to encourage critical thinking in schools so that the next generation of young people are able to challenge authoritarian narratives.

It’s time to gear up for the future. The UK is not without capacity: we spend on Official Development Assistance approximately 70 per cent of what China spends per year on the BRI. It goes without saying that we should not devise an “aid” programme like China’s, but if we can seize the opportunities the new FCDO offers, Britain can strengthen its capacity to extend international prosperity. In doing so, we will save and improve lives, defend vulnerable people from authoritarian advances, and keep British values at the heart of geopolitics in the twenty-first century.

Sunder Katwala: Gandhi does not quite fit the bill of recognising ethnic minority Britons on our currency

4 Aug

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

There is a certain irony in Mahatma Gandhi being the dominant face of India’s currency. There was talk from the moment of independence of Gandhi replacing the image of the king on the money of the new Republic, though it took some decades for that plan to come to fruition.

A special commemorative 100 rupee note was produced as part of the centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s birth in 1969, but it was only during this era of India’s post-liberalisation boom after 1996 that the austere home-spun Mahatma became routinely the image and watermark of modern India’s new high-security banknotes. It is still only Gandhi who appears on Indian banknotes, reflecting both his role as the spiritual father of the nation, and the lack of consensus whenever additional figures have been proposed.

Now Gandhi may be set to achieve an unusual double, following reports that the Royal Mint proposes to feature him on British currency too. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is supporting a call to recognise ethnic minority contributions in those celebrated on our currency.

Sunak wrote to the Royal Mint that “Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities have made a profound contribution to the shared history of the United Kingdom. For generations, ethnic minority groups have fought and died for this country we have built together; taught our children, nursed the sick, cared for the elderly; and through their enterprising spirit have started some of our most exciting and dynamic businesses, creating jobs and driving growth”, in requesting that they bring forward proposals to reflect this on coinage.

The Chancellor’s intervention was a response to the “We Built Britain Too” campaign, coordinated by former Conservative candidate Zehra Zaidi and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon, of which I am a supporter. The campaign had hoped to persuade the Bank of England to feature the first ethnic minority Briton on a banknote.

Despite broad cross-partisan political support across right, left and centre, the Bank of England took a perfunctory and dismissive response to the campaign. The Bank’s remit includes “recognising the diversity of British society” in its choices, but it has considered this primarily through the lens of balancing artists and writers with engineers and scientists.

It seems entirely possible that we will have reached the post-cash society before Britain’s ethnic diversity enters onto the Bank of England’s radar. The support of the Chancellor and the Royal Mint will make a crucial difference to this happening on coins first.

It is not quite the case that no ethnic minority face has ever featured on British coinage. For example, the first black British army officer Walter Tull featured on a special £5 coin, part of a limited edition first world war centenary set in sterling silver and 22 carat gold, for the First World War Centenary.

But no ethnic minority Briton has featured on legal tender, or on the notes or coins that any of us might spend at the shops. The campaign is not proposing any specific individual – wanting to see a process of public engagement and debate – but suggestions including Noor Inayat Khan, Mary Seacole and black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, the first black British voter in the 1774 general election, have been suggested.

Gandhi does not quite fit the bill for the campaign’s aim of recognising ethnic minority Britons. Though he did not live almost of his eight decades of life as among the king’s subjects, though the central mission of his life was that this should cease to be the case. He saw India become independent, and the trauma of Partition, but was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu supporter of the far right RSS within six months.

To the British public, Gandhi is a famous name, one of the great figures who shaped the 20th century and of very few names that would mean at least something to most people. Standing alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as British leaders are a handful of international figures: Hitler and Stalin as the villains of the last century, while Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are cast as its secular saints. No other figure from the end of Empire – including Nehru in India, or any other figure from Ireland, Asia or Africa – has any similar level of public recognition.

So Gandhi’s iconic image is claimed for many causes. An image of integrity, to contrast with the politicians of our time; an image of simplicity and sustainability, perhaps now to be seized by environmentalists; an image of activism, “to be the change you want to be in the world” used for myriad causes.

A simplistic deification of Gandhi risks losing the complexity of the man and his times. He was a pacifist, who helped Britain to recruit Indians in the First World War as a strategy to earn Dominion status, and whose philosophy could drive the British from India but lacked answers to address the menace of Hitler and the Holocaust in WWII.

His arguments with Nehru over India’s post-Independence path illustrates how part of Gandhi’s appeal as an icon in the West can reflect a problematic romanticisation of Indian poverty. Gandhi was a crusader against caste and for India’s untouchables, and developed his strategies in campaigning for Indian rights in South Africa, but held dismissive prejudices against the black Africans, as his leading biographer Ramachandra Guha has set out. “Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology”, as Patrick French wrote in his review of Guha’s Gandhi before India.

So Gandhi too has been challenged by anti-racist campaigners. We should recognise that there are no flawless heroes. The school curriculum should interrogate every controversy, so that we understand them, warts and all. Yet we can not set standards for the recognition of past achievements that not even Churchill or Gladstone, Gandhi or Mandela can attain, or we would surely have no statues at all.

That Gandhi’s statue now stands in Parliament Square – joining the statesmen of previous ages, along with the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett – is modern Britain’s way of acknowledging the justice of Gandhi’s and India’s cause. It places his campaign against British rule as part of the story of British democracy, whose traditions and arguments were used by Indian Nationalists to tell the British that it was time to go.

The statue was welcomed across the British party spectrum, though it was David Cameron and Sajid Javid who unveiled it. The proposal to feature Gandhi on coinage may also be considered an important gesture of Global Britain’s commitments to the Commonwealth – and the warmth of its bilateral relationship with a rising India today – but this is a different, parallel proposition to the case to recognise British ethnic minority contributions.

This timely change would be one simple response to the growing appetite to deepen the public understanding of the history of race in Britain, and how that has shaped the country that we are today. Most people don’t want that to turn into a culture war over the history of our country. If the focus is almost entirely on who might be removed, we risk neglecting to ask contributions we want to recognise better.

This constructive campaign to reflect significant ethnic minority contributions to British history on national symbols, like coins, symbolises how our generation can contribute to broadening Britain’s national story in an inclusive way. Zaidi says her hope is that “it helps build cohesion, inspires young people and unites us as a nation that we all have an equal stake and contribution in society.

Having as open as possible a process of public debate about the potential candidates would maximise the educational value of this positive, symbolic change.