Queen’s Speech debate on Foreign Affairs and Defence in the House of Commons
"May I begin by saying how delighted I am to be back at the dispatch box again after 18 months in Conservative Central Office? I am disappointed that the Foreign Secretary is not able to be here for this debate. He had the courtesy to call me personally and explain why he had to be abroad at this time. Notwithstanding that the date of the Queen's speech has been known for some time, I hope that the government will ensure that its business is organised in a more coherent way.
This is indeed a good time for us to review our foreign policy in general. We are the world's fourth largest economy, with a unique trading pattern and long and varied historical contacts. Yet the ambitions set for our country have been far too modest. The focus of policy has been too narrow. There is too much tactical thinking, and not enough strategic vision. We need to look for new opportunities and challenges. Our long-term prosperity is dependent upon finding new markets and new trading partners. We need to ditch the hang-ups of those who seem obsessed with apologising for our history and turn the goodwill and respect that still exists so extensively for this country into new economic opportunities. We need to look ever more outwards, and remember that the world does not end at the southern border of Greece, or the western border of Portugal.
The charges that we lay against the government are that they are insufficiently ambitious for the United Kingdom; too much foreign policy is about self-aggrandisement rather than the national interest, there is too much short-term tactical consideration, and they have failed to exploit the many opportunities that they have been given. They have failed to understand that British foreign policy is about doing what is in Britain's national interest. The government seems to confuse policy and diplomacy. It is for ministers to set policy in our national interest. It is for the diplomatic service, to carry out that policy diplomatically.
Let me give the house just one example, which indicates the problem.
The European Union has been keen to lift the arms embargo on China, largely to accommodate the wishes of the French and German defence industries. This policy has been strongly opposed by the United States, which has indicated its unwillingness to see new defence technology shared with the United Kingdom, if it is subsequently exported to China. There is no strategic interest to be satisfied in arming the Chinese forces, and there is clearly a downside in terms of defence cooperation with United States. Yet policy has been decided, not on the basis of our national interest, but on the short-term tactical interests of the Prime Minister at the beginning of the British presidency of the EU. The obsession with regaining popularity amongst European leaders seems to take precedence over any other considerations. As long as it is good for him it doesn't matter that it's bad for British industry and British jobs.
It is indeed that relationship with Europe that will be centre stage in the coming months. We need to have a realistic and balanced assessment of our relationship with the European Union and of the relationship between the European Union and the rest of the world. Much good has come from the creation of first the European Community, and then the European Union. We have moved from a century when much of the world's conflict originated on the European continent to a new century where a stable family of democracies has been able to welcome those from the oppressed states of the former Eastern Europe. It has helped with the seamless transition to democracy of Spain, Greece and Portugal and the reunification of Germany. The progress of the single market, albeit at much too slow a pace, has been a step in the right direction.
But the biggest problem with the European Union is that it has a Eurocentric view of the world which is a generation out of date. While the EU gazes at its own navel and slowly ossifies, China, South Asia and the Americas continue to take an increased share of the world markets, eroding what would have been European wealth and power.
How the citizens of Europe have been betrayed by those who have failed or refused to see what is happening beyond the borders of Europe itself. And it is a failure which is compounded by the overtaxing, over-regulating and uncompetitive nature of the Social Democratic policies followed by too many European governments. It is not a coincidence that many more jobs have been created in United States than in the EU, or that the United States has actually been increasing its share of world trade. Social Democratic policies are making Europe less competitive in an ever more competitive world economic environment. There is no Marshall Plan now, no post-war growth spurt to hide the uncompetitive nature of the interventionist doctrine. In a world of ever more fiercely competitive markets it is 'sink or swim' time and the waters are rising around Europe. Overburdened by parasitic bureaucracy, hard-working people across the EU are overtaxed, businesses struggle to compete and the cost of failure is paid for by the young unemployed of France and Germany - by the diminished potential of the next generation. The real problem of the EU is not that described by the little Englanders - that Europe is foreign - but that, in fact, it is not foreign enough. The EU needs to be more outward looking, more flexible and needs to end its absurd obsession with uniformity, which causes unnecessary friction and time wasting.
And all this is important, because in the coming months we will have to decide whether or not we want to sign up to the next chapter of European integration. Hans Martin Bury, the German Europe Minister, has said that "the EU constitution is the birth certificate or the United States of Europe" and that "the constitution is not the endpoint of integration, but the framework for as it says in the preamble, "an ever closer union." This is far from the tidying up exercise described by the government.
The new constitution would undermine individual member states' ability to determine their own policies in key areas such as the economy, law and order and asylum and immigration. The European Union would gain most of the trappings of statehood with its own president, its own Foreign Minister and its own legal system. As my right Honourable friend, the member for Devizes has said "countries have constitutions: nation states make treaties with one another".
The government's whole handling of the European Constitution is typical of how they do business in Europe. First, they say that nothing damaging to Britain is being proposed; then when it is proposed they say they will block it; then that when they give in, they say it is a good thing for Britain after all.
The former Europe Minister the Rt.Hon.Member for Leicester E, claimed that the charter of fundamental rights would be as legally binding as the Beano. But in the constitution the charter will have full legal status and will be enforced through the European Court of Justice.
The right Honourable member for Neath claimed that the negotiations over the constitution were "a triumph for Britain". The truth is that the government simply abandoned many of its objections and accepted the proposals they had previously condemned. During the constitution negotiations, the former Europe Minister tabled 275 different amendments. Only 27 were included in the final draft. Yet the objections covered many important areas.
The government called for the new EU power to "ensure coordination of the employment policies of member states" to be deleted. But it was ignored.
The government said they did not want an EU Foreign Minister. The former Europe Minister said it was "unacceptable". But the government was ignored.
The government opposed making the charter of fundamental rights legally binding. But in the end as ever, they gave way.
Originally the government opposed the very idea of a constitution. In 2000, the Prime Minister said that there should not be "a single legally binding document called a constitution". But in the end he gave in to those other member states who wanted one.
On the 12th of May 1997, the new Foreign Secretary, the Right Honourable member for Livingstone, launched his mission statement. He stated "the Labour government does not accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business ... our foreign policy, must have an ethical dimension and must supported the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves. The Labour government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy." To that Mr Speaker, I say just one word. Zimbabwe.
On Africa, the many speeches and endless photo opportunities of the Prime Minister and Chancellor have generated more heat than light. In his speech launching the report of the commission for Africa on the 11th of March, the Prime Minister managed to not mention Zimbabwe at all-yet it is surely the greatest stain of all on Africa's fragile democratic record. For all his talk, the Prime Minister has achieved little. When robust action was required, the Prime Minister looked the other way. Robert Mugabe has destroyed the rule of law, contravened human rights in the most appalling way and destroyed his country's prosperity with a casual indifference. Yet this British government has stood idly by. They have bottled out of confronting President Mbeki over his tacit support for Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe depends upon South African energy supplies yet this Labour government has seemed afraid to demand action from President Mbeki. The New Partnership for African Development requires President Mbeki, to promote democracy in southern Africa, and he should have been reminded of that. The consequences of inactivity, have not only been continued suffering in Zimbabwe, but tacit encouragement to other southern African countries to consider similar land occupations, as we saw in Zimbabwe with such damaging consequences.
Of course, none of this has been helped by consigning the Commonwealth to the periphery of British foreign policy. It is one of our most valuable resources for exerting influence in the world. Yet this Labour government regard it with disdain. Sometimes, Mr Speaker, I think that Britain does not deserve the Commonwealth. The French or the Germans would give their right hands to be at the centre of an organisation with such political and economic potential. So much could be done, but so little is attempted by this government. Whether it is limited vision, lack of ambition, or some sort of postcolonial guilt syndrome it is impossible to say - but it is certainly a wasted opportunity. From India with its massive potential for growth to Sri Lanka, where I had the honour to play a small part in the peace process, to the powerhouse that is Australia, there is so much that could be achieved. Yet so little is attempted.
The one area where the government has been only too ready to become engaged is Iraq. I do not intend to go over whether or not the Attorney General gave inconsistent advice on the legality of the war. Nor do I intend to rehearse the familiar arguments about whether the country was misled about Iraq's ultimately non-existent weapons of mass destruction. What is clear is this. Iraq was in clear breach of its international obligations. If Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein's regime was certainly intent on getting them. The security of neighbouring nations and the stability of the region as a whole would have been put at risk by this development. And I make these points, Mr Speaker, not just because of their relevance to Iraq, but because of their relevance to Iran. Just what are the parallels between Iraq and Iran? There is widespread public anxiety that the decision to undertake military action in Iraq was taken long before the House of Commons voted for it. What is the government's plan of action for Iran? The approach of the three European governments does not seem to be reaping rewards. If the Security Council comes next, what sanctions do we envisage, and in what timescale? Transparency on this issue from the outset is vital if we are to maintain public confidence. Trust will be harder to come by second time around.
Mr. Speaker, much is talked about globalisation today. One of the benevolent consequences of globalisation is that it is more difficult for governments to misrule their peoples and mismanage their resources without quickly running into problems. Globalisation may not make bad government more difficult, but it certainly makes it more apparent.
International interdependence brings opportunities as well as challenges.
Interdependence based on Free trade increases political stability and makes military conflict less likely. Governments require stability to make sure their economic interests are not interrupted and having vested interests in other countries reinforces the likelihood of effective international defence cooperation.
Free trade offers opportunities for exporters to take advantage of new markets as they emerge. Michigan University estimate that if only a third of all tariffs on agriculture, manufacturing and services were cut, world trade would rise by $613bn, the equivalent of an economy the size of Canada.
Free trade provides the best opportunity for third world countries to provide themselves with a sustainable income and is infinitely preferable to dependence on aid. While no one can deny the vital role which aid can play in the short term, it is often little more than conscience money paid out by developed economies who are preventing less developed countries from gaining access to their markets.
Aid has become synonymous with caring about poverty when, on the ground, it is all too often a process of taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries.
We, in this country, have one of the best, if not the best, programmes of bilateral aid in the world. We need to have greater control over this aid budget. The work of the British Council and the NGOs should just how effective our programmes can be when they are managed on the ground by those who understand local conditions. Those of us who have seen their work at first hand, have marvelled at their skill and efficiency. What a contrast to the expensive and bureaucratic operations, run by so many multilateral organisations.
Mr Speaker, this country has so much to offer in Europe and beyond. We will support the Government where it does the right things and we give particular support to their efforts to deal with global warming and the effects on climate change. It is an issue that affects all the world and its future generations.
In the United Kingdom the compassion of our citizens, the expertise of many of our organisations, our economic and political standing, our historical perspective and diplomatic experience all give as natural advantages in pursuing a positive, outward looking and optimistic foreign policy.
All that holds us back is the lack of ambition of our own government. We need a foreign policy that is run for the long-term interests of the United Kingdom, not the short-term tactical interests of this Labour government. It is a sad state of affairs, but will not always be so."