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.

Required next time. A fresh, charistmatic Tory leader who embodies modern, multi-racial Britain. Does that suggest anyone?

18 Jul

‘Don’t be so gloomy, the wheel will turn’. That, in essence, is the counter-argument to my last column.

Two weeks ago, I made the case on this site that the nature of the Conservative Party has changed. It has done so to reflect the fact that the swing voter in the swing seats has a different set of values than was the case before. Compared to the swing voters of the past (and, indeed, the typical Conservative voter of the present), the polling evidence shows that the voters who gave Boris Johnson his electoral triumph in 2019 are economically left wing and socially right wing.

If the Conservatives want to retain those Red Wall seats, I argued, they will need to deliver economic policies that are consistent with these views – high spending and interventionist – and ensure that cultural issues remain salient. It was a depressing conclusion, I argued, if you were a ‘small state free marketeer, or a one nation social liberal’ and that ‘I fear it is too late to turn back’.

One person who took issue with my conclusion was my good friend, David Lidington. As well as being probably the nicest person in politics, he is also one of the wisest. In his response on ConHome, David set out, from the perspective of a liberal Conservative, reasons to be optimistic.

First, he makes the very fair point that, in the 45 years in which he has been a member of the Conservative Party, it has been a home for many different types of Conservative and that ‘different leaders of the party, at different times have chosen to emphasise different elements of the broad Conservative tradition’.

Second, he acknowledges that ‘we shall want to hang on to traditional Labour supporters who lent us their votes last December, which in turn means that in four years’ time they need to see that we are at least beginning to deliver results for their families and neighbourhoods’ but that ‘to win again in 2024 we shall need to secure support from more younger voters than we did in either of the last two elections and to do that will mean reaching out to people whose values are, in the convenient shorthand, more “socially liberal” than those of their parents and grandparents, and who want to see political parties to take seriously their concerns about issues like the environment’.

‘Far from giving up in despair,’ David concludes, ‘liberal, centrist Conservatives should redouble our efforts to influence the party’s thinking about how we can win again in 2024’.

I genuinely wish David and other liberal, centrist Conservatives well in that endeavour. His analysis of the need to appeal to younger more socially liberal voters is one I share for two reasons.

First, I think it would lead to better government and, second, in the longer term, the Conservative Party will need to broaden its base. Relying on the votes of those born before 1960 has obvious long term problems. But in terms of understanding what will happen, there is a tension between what I would like to happen and the Prime Minister’s preferences, as revealed in the events of last year. I suspect those revealed preferences are a more reliable indicator.

Last year’s general election result was a triumph for the Prime Minister. It was the product of strategic clarity. Under Boris Johnson’s leadership, there was no real attempt to appeal to both sides of the Brexit debate (although he received the reluctant support of plenty of Remainers who were terrified of Jeremy Corbyn) but that gave him a clear message which appealed to the half of the country that favoured leaving the EU.

Theresa May had sought to seek a resolution to the Brexit issue that satisfied both sides of the argument. Leavers would see us depart from the EU, Remainers would see sufficient continuity to avoid the economic and security downsides that we feared from a hard Brexit. In my view, this was the sensible approach to the referendum result but by the time we got to last year it had little public support. Opinion was polarised into supporting a hard Brexit at any price or no Brexit at all, as the results in the European Parliamentary elections showed.

Johnson’s strategy was to be clearly identified as being on one side of the argument. In everything he did – from the make-up of the Cabinet, the prorogation of Parliament, the withdrawal of the whip for Conservative rebels, the nature of the general election campaign – was designed to win over the support of Leave voters. Forcing the Brexit Party essentially to step-aside in the general election meant that the Conservative Party had a near monopoly on Leave voters against a divided and badly led opposition.

Some will argue that these were the circumstances of 2019, but that does not make them the circumstances for 2024. And this brings me to the key question. Are we living through a fundamental realignment of British politics? Are our politics no longer defined by divisions on the grounds of economic class but on cultural identity? The somewheres versus the anywheres, the provincial and rural versus the metropolitan, non-graduates versus graduates, the socially conservative versus the socially liberal, the nationalist versus internationalist.

My view is that we are in such a period. More to the point, I think that the Prime Minister and the people around him believe that we are and that their view is that the most likely route to electoral success for the Conservative Party (and the route to success last year) is for the Party to embrace that realignment and establish itself as the Party for those on one side of the new dividing line in British politics.

Brexit may have accelerated this transformation but it did not cause it. Throughout the world, centre-right parties are being dragged in a similar direction as the social democratic left loses its grip on its traditional supporters, providing an opportunity for parties who can defend the cultural identity of those voters.

If that analysis is right (and, again, I would rather it is not), the wheel is not going to turn, at least not for a long time. Political realignments do not happen very often and this realignment has worked out very nicely for the Conservatives so far. But it means that the Conservative Party will not be economically or socially liberal (at least in terms of issues of national identity) for some time to come.

There is one other point. If I am wrong and David Lidington is right that the best course of action is for the Conservatives to seek the support of younger, more socially liberal voters there is a significant obstacle. Even though he is in many ways a social liberal himself, Boris Johnson is too battle-scarred, too associated with Brexit, too polarising to reinvent the Conservative Party yet again.

Fresh leadership by 2024 would be necessary. Someone not associated with the turmoil and divisions of 2016-19, someone with the charisma and communication skills to appeal to younger voters, someone who could embody modern, multi-racial Britain. Maybe, just maybe, such a leader could take the Conservative Party in a different direction. But who could fit the bill? Hmm.

David Lidington: Why I profoundly disagree with my friend and former colleague, David Gauke

7 Jul

David Lidington was the MP for Aylesbury from 1992 to 2019, and has held a number of roles including Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.

Last Thursday, in a piece that was characteristically both thoughtful and thought-provoking, my friend and former Cabinet colleague David Gauke came to a pessimistic conclusion. Choices had been made, he argued, which compelled the Conservative Party to pursue “the war on woke and Rooseveltian economics”. Implicit in his analysis was the suggestion that those whom he termed “small state free marketeers and one nation social liberals” had no future in the party and might have to look elsewhere.

I profoundly disagree. Throughout the 45 years that I’ve been a member and for decades before that the Conservative Party has been a coalition. Economic liberals, defenders of traditional values and institutions, social reformers, blue-green environmentalists: all have found a home. Different leaders of the party, at different times have chosen to emphasise different elements of the broad Conservative tradition.

As Paul Goodman pointed out yesterday, human beings tend not to fit neatly into a single, neat political category. Margaret Thatcher was strongly in favour of opening up broadcasting to greater competition and market discipline. Yet she was also passionate about the need for high standards of decency in what was broadcast – which meant intervention and regulation. I have crossed swords with Iain Duncan Smith many times over Europe, but have also admired his efforts to promote a Conservative approach to social justice.

The present government’s commitment to “level up” the opportunities available to people living in towns and estates that have for years felt left-behind and ignored will need to draw on all strands of Conservative thinking if ambition is to be realised: incentives for free enterprise to create wealth and jobs, and government action, both national and local, to provide modern infrastructure, drive urban regeneration and boost expectations and outcomes in education and training.

For years, Conservatives have fretted about our loss of support in old industrial areas and among people on lower incomes. The fact that we now represent seats in County Durham and South Yorkshire as well as Surrey and Sussex is something to be celebrated: it gives our words about standing for One Nation much greater credibility.

If a successful policy of levelling up (and at the same time improving our chances of holding those seats) means a tilt towards the economic and industrial policies of Macmillan, Heath and Heseltine, it should be seen as a pragmatic response to the needs of the times, certainly meriting debate and argument, including within the Conservative family, not some heretical departure from the one true faith.

Nor do I share David’s pessimistic conclusion that there is an inexorable electoral logic which must compel the party to abandon the ideas, policies and perhaps even the support of liberal Conservatives.

By 2024 the Conservative Party will have been in office for 14 years. The coming economic storm, even if, as we all hope, it is short-lived, will have left many people scarred. The Labour Party will be led by someone who is not Jeremy Corbyn. The temptation to vote “for a change”, to “give the other lot a chance” will be strong. It will be as great a challenge to secure re-election then as it was for John Major in 1992. We shall need every vote from as broad a coalition of support as we can.

Of course we shall want to hang on to traditional Labour supporters who lent us their votes last December, which in turn means that in four years time they need to see that we are at least beginning to deliver results for their families and neighbourhoods.

But that on its own won’t be enough. By 2024 there will be about three million new electors on the register who were too young to vote in 2019. According to YouGov, at last year’s election the tipping point – the age at which someone is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour – was 39.

That is better than 2017, when it was 47, but still leaves no room for complacency. While it is possible that those who were in their teens, twenties and thirties in 2019 will automatically shift into the Conservative column by 2024, we cannot count on it happening.

In any case, we ought to be seriously concerned that so many people in their twenties and thirties – working, paying tax and often holding both professional and family responsibilities – should have preferred Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism to what we had to offer.

To win again in 2024 we shall need to secure support from more younger voters than we did in either of the last two elections and to do that will mean reaching out to people whose values are, in the convenient shorthand, more “socially liberal” than those of their parents and grandparents, and who want to see political parties to take seriously their concerns about issues like the environment.

Next year, the Prime Minister will host a world summit on climate change. The Glasgow conference will be an opportunity for the United Kingdom and its Conservative government both to showcase its own ideas to address the climate emergency and to demonstrate global leadership on the issue.

In recent years, “green” policies have been identified with the liberal wing of the party. David Cameron took a lot of flak early in his leadership for focusing on this agenda.

Again, it’s easy to oversimplify: I’m old enough to have been in the audience at the party conference in 1988 to hear Mrs Thatcher declare that: No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full. The key point is that it will be both right and in our electoral interests to take action on the environment and to be seen to do so.

Another political reality that the party must grapple with is the fact that voters from British people of Caribbean, Asian, African and central European heritage make up a significant proportion of the electorate in a growing number of constituencies.

Yet again, we need to beware of oversimplification. Many of my former constituents from Pakistani, Indian and Polish backgrounds are on the social conservative rather than social liberal end of the spectrum. They are certainly a long way from being “woke”.

But they care passionately about racism – sadly almost always because they and their children have been at the receiving end of abusive or insensitive comments – or worse. They judge politicians in part by how they handle these matters. Community relations and anti-racism are causes that, like the environment, have been championed within the Conservative Party by its liberal wing and, once again, are issues where our electoral interest coincides with what it is right to say and do.

The Conservative Party’s electoral success has rested in large measure on its ability and willingness to adapt to the realities of social and economic change. Far from giving up in despair, liberal, centrist Conservatives should redouble our efforts to influence the party’s thinking about how we can win again in 2024.