Time to move on
Nearly three months ago the British people gave an instruction to the Government that the UK should leave the European Union. Since 23rd June there has been much drama in British politics with resignations and elections right, left and centre. While being very interesting to observers of these things, it was not the ‘political crisis’ that some in the media and the world in and around Westminster seemed to be proclaiming it as. A civil war is a crisis. A natural disaster is a crisis. Not a few political resignations and a couple of leadership contests. Just like there was no ‘political crisis’ there has not been an economic ‘armageddon’ either. Unsurprisingly the lurid tales of doom and ‘end of the world’ scenarios supposedly going to descend on the UK on the 24th of June have turned out to be nonsense. These two examples of ‘commentariat’ overreaction have reinforced the ever more evident fact that the people are much wiser than their rulers and the latter’s hangers-on in the glitterati and intelligentsia.
Our leaders and associated ‘intellectual class’ are failing in a third way. This time they are failing to pick up the mantle of developing new thinking about a post-EU UK. If you were being generous you might think this was perhaps the result of a new found modesty due to their getting so much wrong over the years. Having observed politicians and the ‘commenteriat’ for a while a sudden outburst of humility seems unlikely. Rather, what is more likely is that their inertia (to put it gently) is the result of a mixture of a refusing still to accept the democratic decision of the people combined with the inclination of the so-called ‘elites’ to obsess over the ‘soap opera’ of politics rather than substantive issues added to the tendency of the political class to take a technocratic approach to politics within a very narrow Overton Window. This ‘third’ failure is as prominent on the left of politics as it is on the right. The Labour Party and the wider left, distracted by the naval gazing of a leadership election and ongoing petulant reactions to the referendum result have left a gaping hole in the public space where the left should be developing new thinking and looking to dominate the public discourse on policy ideas for the future. As the Government develops its EU-exit plan and shows glimpses of what it will do with the UK’s new found political and policy freedoms e.g. industrial strategy, corporate governance reforms, a new life chances agenda etc, the Labour Party in particular risks looking like it has veered off into a lay-by to stamp its feet and hold the voters in contempt.
It is somewhat depressing thinking about the way much of the Labour Party failed to engage with the big issues of the early 21st Century. Although to be fair, there are a few in the Labour Party that are turning their minds to the future and displaying a degree of maturity. The first step is to accept the verdict of the British people. Embrace the catharsis of acknowledging the referendum outcome and move on. John McDonnell has clearly stated that the referendum result has to be accepted. This has to remain Labour’s official position, which all MPs must get behind. For the people’s elected representatives not to do so would be an astonishing turn of events, proving beyond doubt (if any more evidence were needed) that the EU is a corrupting and anti-democratic idea and institution. Then the left has to start to think deeply and fairly rapidly about the next steps. John Mills has established Labour Future, which is intended to start to develop forward looking left ideas. Groups like Blue Labour and discussion and debate platforms like Left Futures also have an important role to play. So too do the left’s intellectual base in think tanks such as the Fabians, IPPR, Class etc.
Once the imperative to ‘move past’ the referendum result is admitted and actioned then the question arises as to what the left needs to do. In the first instance it needs to engage with the ‘divorce arrangements’ from the EU based on a clear analysis of the instructions given to the political class by the British people. At the same time, it needs to begin to think about engagement with the rest of the world. Enough time has passed now for those rational remain supporters in particular to move on and start to think about how to make a post-EU UK work best. There are encouraging signs from MPs such as Emma Reynolds and Liz Kendall among others that this may be starting to happen. But extensive thinking needs to be carried out and ideas developed before the Government triggers Article 50, which could be as early as the first few months of 2017. Leaving it too long will mean the left in general and the Labour Party in particular miss the boat on influencing the public debate on the shape of the new UK-EU relationship.
The big questions for the future
The Government will trigger Article 50 once it has its plans in place. Once the May Government’s positions are agreed internally it is unlikely they will change them as a result of domestic arguments and pressures e.g. as a result of powerful arguments from the official opposition, no matter how compelling. The factors that will influence the negotiations at such a time will be the dynamics of the exit negotiations and little else. Therefore, in order to influence anything, the left needs a robust range of arguments and ideas in the next weeks and months. It further needs to show that there is a groundswell for them such that the Government has to take them seriously.
What does the ambition described above mean in terms of concrete points to be dealt with? It suggests three topics which require urgent application, although the first two are perhaps more urgent than the third. These are:
The shape of any new relationship with the EU;
The nature of the relationships the UK should have with other parts of the world now large swathes of foreign policy (in its broadest sense) are no longer mediated through or directly controlled by the EU;
What kind of domestic agenda the left should look to pursue outside the EU now significant proportions of domestic policy are no longer controlled by the EU.
The first two topics are big foreign policy questions. They are multifaceted, incorporating issues such as: trade and commerce, defence and security, bi and multi-lateral diplomatic relations and the domestic capacity to support such activities, international development and global resilience issues among others.
Let us be frank, foreign policy and its multiple constituent elements has not been a policy strong point of the left for many, many decades. Indeed, there is a good argument to be made that the last time Labour had a coherent policy on defence was when Denis Healey was at the Ministry of Defence. As for broader issues of international politics, grand strategy and associated policy, you would probably have to go further back to the Atlee Governments to look for something approaching a coherent approach backed up by actions and requisite resources. The foreign policy of the most recent Labour Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown could hardly be called coherent. At best they might be described as partially successful. The partial success came in relation to EU policy where the objective of submitting the UK to the ever greater dominance by the EU was achieved. However, they never achieved their other EU policy goal, that of ‘leading the EU’.
The consequences of EU membership for foreign policy and the left
Membership of the EU was, too a significant degree, saving the left from having to bother with too much foreign policy thinking on the big foreign policy issues. Trade and commerce, well the EU dealt with that so there was little need to think about it. International diplomatic relations, the EU countries were the overriding focus for much of it and so little effort needed to be made to think about key relationships with large swathes of the wider world. And it goes on. The result has been skewed thinking and at best a ‘stunted internationalism’ within the Labour Party. This ‘stunted internationalism’ saw the Labour Party lose sight of the principle of genuine internationalism as it became more bewitched by supra-nationalism and 27 particular countries plus a Commission, a Council, a Court of Justice etc across the Channel. The result has been under-developed efforts in the foreign policy space for a long time.
Before anyone gets distressed that this post is not giving enough credit to previous Labour Governments in relation to some foreign policy related areas, this post is certainly not denying that there has been some positive engagement with other countries in the rest of the world. One notable policy was the establishment of the Department for International Development (DfID) and a re-energising of international development policy. Again however, this was stunted by the role of the EU, where considerable amounts of aid were controlled directly by the EU and efforts to support developing economies were stifled by the EU’s neo-imperialist Economic Partnership agreements with African and Caribbean countries, regressive tariff and agricultural policies and the EU’s obsession with building a world of ‘regional blocs’ rather than a world of self-determining peoples.
A new internationalism
Individual foreign policy successes like the re-energising of international development policy are not the same as a coherent strategy and foreign policy. The latter is needed more than ever in a post-EU UK. A good place to start would be for the left to fully embrace the fundamental strategic pivot towards a more globally oriented way of thinking about foreign policy that is now needed. One shift such a pivot implies (although the specifics would have to be hotly debated) is more serious engagement, in a more intensive and sustained way, with the world’s numerous multilateral bodies. Such a pivot is fully consistent with left-wing values. Indeed, it should re-invigorate one of the most important – internationalism.
A new internationalism, as a result of a shift to a more globally focussed UK, could result in a significant step-up in the importance of the Commonwealth, which was once very dear to the Labour Party, but has not been seriously engaged with as an institution by left foreign policy thinkers for a long time. Kate Hoey MP has advocated a more Commonwealth orientated foreign policy for some time. With Baroness Scotland of Asthal now in place and looking to push the importance and potential of the Commonwealth, this organisation could be about to increase in importance. Therefore, the question the left should be asking is, has the time come to revitalise interest in a truly international institution like the Commonwealth, which reaches across and brings together developed and developing countries? What might be achieved for people across the Commonwealth by moving in such a direction?
Similarly, other multi-lateral bodies may need to be engaged with in a wider ranging way than currently in order to deal with many of the growing global risks that are being thrown up by the 21st Century. Dealing with international security risks such as cyber espionage requires co-operation with others. Therefore, bodies with a security purpose like NATO may have to be more seriously thought about by the left. Similarly, cyber crime is a growing threat. Dealing most effectively with it requires collaboration too. The left will have to think imaginatively about organisations such as Interpol, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Internet Governance Forum among others as vital fora for collaborating on such issues. Further, the advantage of truly international bodies like those listed are the opportunities they offer through their greater reach and potential effectiveness compared to a limited regional bloc like the EU.
The point of this post is not to say exactly what conclusions the left should come to on the issue of foreign policy. Rather it is to:
Raise some of the key questions the left needs to start asking itself and to offer some initial suggestions about possible directions in which to look for some answers; and
Highlight the need for urgency and encourage those who are already picking up this baton to grab it fully and take it as far as possible.
After this opening salvo, the hope is that aspects of foreign policy (in its widest sense) will be returned to in future post