Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Memo on … foreign affairs

Congratulations on your appointment as foreign secretary. You join Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, James Callaghan, Tony Crosland, Robin Cook, Jack Straw and David Miliband in the pantheon. As you mount the Grand Staircase, and stroll around the Locarno Suite and Durbar Court, you will find it hard not to be in awe of your new office. It is hard to believe there was a plan in the 1960s to knock it down and build a new one. Can you imagine what modernist horror would now stand on Whitehall if the vandals had had their way?

In his 1959 book The Labour Case, Roy Jenkins argued that:

there is a real danger that the United Kingdom may become a stagnant economic backwater, cut off from the mainstream of European economic growth.

He went on to argue that:

our true interests will not be served by pretending that we live in a world which has long since disappeared, when our wealth was as great as our aspirations, and a British gunboat was more powerful than the total of Afro-Asian opinion.

If it was true in 1959, when we had bases from Germany to Hong Kong, and our aircraft carriers had planes on them, it is magnified many times over today. Your job as a Labour foreign secretary should therefore not be one of managing the decline of Britain’s influence, from the grandeur of Gilbert Scott’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but instead defining a new role. Cook tried ‘ethical foreign policy’ in his first weeks. Tony Blair invented our modern understanding of liberal interventionism in his 1999 Chicago speech. You need a doctrine, one which places us at the heart of world affairs, but neither as world’s aid donor, nor world’s policeman.

The first job is not Europe. It is repairing the relationship with the United States. They are still sore at us for scuppering the opportunity to intervene to prevent the massacre in Syria. You need to build a good relationship with Barack Obama and secretary of state John Kerry. In theory, our shared progressive agenda should open doors. But get on the plane this week, and go to Washington.

Second, you need to look east. A theme for your tenure on this job should be forging new links with China. Our destiny is linked to China more than any other state. Go to Beijing this month. If you want to see economic growth, visit a Chinese city with more than a million citizens – there are over 100 to choose from. Europe has 35, and the US nine. Visit one of the 2,000 universities, with their six million students. If you want to see an efficient, modern civil service, visit the Party School in the Haidian district of Beijing and see how they train their public leaders. The Chinese are building 82 new airports right now – which makes our controversy over one new runway at Heathrow look a bit pathetic. The world is tilting eastwards, and we need to tilt with it.

Third, Africa. Britain is uniquely placed to benefit from the rise of Africa. Unlike the French and the Belgians, our retreat from Empire was reasonably ordered, and in most places they still like us. Ask officials for the latest African growth rates. The overall growth rate in sub-Saharan Africa is around five per cent. But look deeper at places such Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where growth is motoring ahead. British foreign policy must shift away from seeing Africa as either a series of basket cases to which to donate aid, or a collection of Commonwealth countries for Prince William to visit. On your watch, Britain can become an equal economic partner with the great nations of Africa as they make their ascendancy. You could start by asking for a briefing with Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative, which has done great work over five years.

Europe, really? Must we? The last government left us quite a mess to clean up. You will need to repair the damage, but I advise that this is mostly the job for the minister for Europe (you can see my previous memo to them, here). You will need to navigate the forthcoming referendum, and ensure that we win it. You will need to meet the leaders of France and Germany when you get back from Washington next week. Britain’s interests lie firmly in Europe, as Jenkins correctly wrote all those years ago.

The Middle East is in flames. The Arab Spring has turned into a long, cold winter. Russia is out of control. The US is becoming increasingly isolationist. Across the globe, populations are on the move in their millions, water is running short, the seas are rising, Islamism is on the march and nation states are disintegrating into their religious and ethnic components. The point is you cannot fix it all, or even any bit of it, even if we still had a gunboat. But you can try to leave office with Britain’s reputation a little higher, our trade a little more buoyant, our partnerships more fruitful and our own people benefitting from the awesome power of globalisation. If foreign policy means anything, it means helping someone in Swindon get a job.


Paul Richards is a writer and political consultant. He is author of the Memo on … column, part of the Campaign for a Labour Majority; read all his pieces here. He tweets @LabourPaul


Photo: David Wilmot


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Paul Richards


  • ‘First job is not Europe [?]… but repairing damage done to USA by scuppering [new attacks on Syrian civilians] (sic)..’ : newsflash: Russian Bear may ‘go-ape on planet’. [see Ukraine news].
    ‘China is building 82 new airports…’ with 82 million buckets carried by slaves.
    ‘Middle East in flames’ – its been ‘in flames’ since the burning bush episode in Christian bible.
    And I can’t ascertain or figure who the advice in this article is aimed at or for? A Tory FO Sec or the new Labour incumbent at FO next year on 7 May 2015?

  • ‘ .. unlike the French or Belgians [or Italians, Germans, Portuguese and Dutch] our retreat from Empire [in Africa] was reasonably ordered … and in most places they still like us.’
    Hi Robert! How’s the weather in Zim – put the pot on for a brew, mate – I think the writer should go on a tour of Africa today, in a Landrover with a Union Jack motif, start in Sierra Leone and go via the Congos and NW Cameroon on a fact-seeking mission. On second thoughts, have the oil moguls in Texas [Mobil, Exxon and Petronas, not BP] prepare an AA-type safe-route-plan for you beforehand, I wish you luck. [Joking: don’t go]

  • This article is right to highlight how the French Empire and the Belgian empire retreated precipitately and without any plan from Africa, especially Belgium as former colonial power to the Congo now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) leaving the DRC totally unprepared for self-governance and without adequate infrastructure at all before its independence. This is why former French colonies in Africa such as Algeria, Tunisia and Gabon are willing to join the Commonwealth and also former Belgian colonies such as Rwanda has already joined the Commonwealth with the DRC and Burundi to follow soon as new Commonwealth countries. That is the new dynamics for a modern Commonwealth in the 21st century to ensure a common-trade, common-growth and common-wealth for more than 2 billion people around the world as Commonwealth citizens from Commonwealth countries

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