Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A staggering abdication of leadership

We need a government with a credible foreign and defence policy. The atrocities being carried out in Iraq by Islamic State, the conflict and rising tensions in Ukraine and the ongoing conflict in Gaza, are just the latest examples to expose the void in government thinking. The abdication of leadership is staggering.

The United Nations estimates that around 30,000 people, followers of the Yazidi faith, are still trapped on Sinjar Mountain, where they scrambled to escape slaughter from fanatics who despise their religion. Thousands of Christians – and Muslims too – have also had to flee their homes rather than face execution. The ancient order of the Middle East, where minorities coexisted and lived in communities ages old, is being swept away and, as Douglas Alexander has highlighted recently, in the case of Iraq this is happening in a bloody and violent fashion. Tensions have been rising further in Ukraine over a controversial aid convoy, while battles – representing the next chapter in Russia’s power games – and the civil war there continue.

The government’s response has been reactive and well behind events. The rise of Islamic State cannot have been a complete surprise given its role in Syria as that conflict evolved. Perhaps the government hoped the problem would go away. It has not. David Cameron may be on top of his brief on foreign affairs but that counts for little if he does not exercise some leadership or if he is incompetent when he does. The coalition defence policy is now even further discredited, as we look to move more forces to Nato’s eastern borders and now are deploying forces in and over Iraq once more, all with a military we are still depleting. Little is said about encouraging a durable peace in the Middle East. We really do seem to be echoing the Baldwin years, reluctant to face the reality of a worsening international situation while recovering from economic depression.

Yet the United Kingdom has a duty, with others, to take a bigger lead in the international response to security and humanitarian concerns, for a number of reasons. These include the urgent requirement to help people in need, the risk of terrorism at home, and our responsibilities that come with being a permanent member of the UN Security Council and leading nation in Nato and the European Union.

Despite initial assurances that we would avoid military intervention in Iraq, we are now dropping aid to refugees, reportedly making refuelling available for United States aircraft, sending ‘reconnaissance’ Tornados and considering providing Chinook helicopters to provide aid or evacuate people. That represents quite a commitment already, in terms of logistical support and people involved, and there is a real risk of mission creep. That is not to say that military intervention would be unjustified (if we support recent US action we have accepted its necessity anyway), simply that we ought to be clear about what the UK is doing and why. If we are able to help stop slaughter, we should – taking lessons from the west’s regret at not doing more to stop genocide in Rwanda and massacres in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and learning from the terrible errors of the Iraq war.

The first move should be a huge increase in humanitarian assistance. Any direct use of force would be a big step. Force should only ever be used in the last resort, within a moral framework for morally justifiable aims, and when it is clearly the lesser of evils, since it is a matter of life and death and comes with great risks. It should pass key tests, as I highlighted in the recent case of Syria.

While the coalition yet again scrambles to revise its defence policy on the fly, Labour should also do some work. Recent developments need to be factored into our shadow defence review. This needs to incorporate a much greater consideration of the threat from extremism and from the reluctance of Russia to respect international norms and boundaries. The review also needs to focus on how waste can be reduced from the defence budget, to enable better support and equipment for personnel in our armed forces, since the scope for increasing the budget is limited. Finally, we have to be clearer about what sort of country we want to be in the world.

If we want to be a country that retains the option to deliver humanitarian aid and use force, we need both the means to do so and national debates and consensus about when it is necessary. However, a more proactive foreign and defence policy in the first place would help reduce the occasions when we are faced with the most difficult of decisions. This should be Labour’s aim.


Stephen Beer is a former chair of Vauxhall CLP. This article represents his personal opinion. He blogs at


Photo: HelmandBlog

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Stephen Beer

is an economist and works as a senior fund manager at the Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church and author of the Fabian pamphlet, The Credibility Deficit – how to rebuild Labour’s economic reputation.


  • No. In almost every respect Stephen Beer is wrong. He may wish that the UK was a ‘leader’ nation. It is not. Few of our fellow citizens wish to ‘lead’ the world in putting right the many injustices, instances of aggression, thefts of public goods by private interests, religious extremism and other wrongdoings that we can all accuse others of. I do not believe the UK has a unique obligation to compound its illegal – in my view but maybe not yours – invasion of Iraq by intervening again to mitigate the consequences of the original action. I do abdicate all personal responsibility and feel no guilt about the crime of invading Iraq because I marched against it. Perhaps Stephen Beer does feel guilt but that is no sound basis for intervention. The harsh fact is that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago has not yet worked itself out. The Imperial powers of the 1920’s carved up the Middle East – as they carved up Africa – for their own ends. That left a legacy of instability from which the people of the region are still suffering. But the UK citizens of today, particularly that third of them who live in increasingly harsh and impoverished circumstances, have no obligation to behave as if the British Empire still exists. Yes, we should contribute to international programmes to relieve distress. No, we have no worthwhile contribution to make to the unravelling of the colonial legacy. Except to stop any UK bank, private business, arms dealer or oil exploiter, from further corrupting that region.

  • I do agree with everything that Paul Harman is saying and I would go further we don’t seem to have learnt anything from our past. We created the situation what is unfollowing in the middle east now, we were very disingenuous in our reason for going into Iraq in the first place this is the consequence we are seeing unfolding now. The other problem we seem as though we want to go back to the cold war its not the answer, because with all the military might we have we will never solve the world problem by force. There is a easy solution to this present problem, is to stop demonising Islam which is feeding the Jihadis.

  • This the consequence of our folly of our past action ingoing into Iraq, we are now witnessing the suffering. We have watch this problem unfolding in Syria, we more less incourighted the Jihadis because we wanted regime change. Because if we don’t find a peaceful solution but this look unlikely I do think that the Saudis hold the key to this situation.

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