The new Labour government in 1997 was immediately internationalist in its approach, recalls Mike Gapes
The 1997 government hit the ground running – on aid, ethics, Ireland and Europe – and brought a new dynamism to Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world. The Department for International Development was established by Tony Blair on day one and headed up by Clare Short. She flew to Paris that first weekend to rejoin Unesco. Gordon Brown massively increased funding for international development, with a commitment to achieve the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent of GNI. There was a special emphasis on child poverty reduction, and support for the Global Fund to combat HIV/Aids and malaria. The British Labour government played a key role in the 2000 summit which established the 15-year millennium development goals. In 2003 Valerie Amos became the first black woman ever in the British cabinet and led DfID with distinction. She was subsequently, in 2010, appointed as United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordination. By the time Labour left office, DfID was receiving three times the budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Foreign secretary Robin Cook said that future foreign policy would have a clear ‘ethical dimension’. He established an annual human rights report, and also led the government to produce an annual report on United Kingdom arms exports, with quarterly updates to parliament. Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 in accordance with the agreements negotiated by Margaret Thatcher and John Major for ‘one country, two systems’.
The Ministry of Defence under George Robertson kicked off the strategic defence and security review, the most serious and wide-ranging assessment ever undertaken. It engaged NGOs, thinktanks and civil society, lasted 18 months and shaped a shift towards expeditionary forces. In 1999 Robertson left to become a highly effective secretary general of Nato, the third Briton and first Labour politician to hold the role.
The government moved quickly to establish good relations with the Irish Republic. The excellent chemistry between Blair and Bertie Ahern, and support from president of the United States Bill Clinton and the European Union, were vital. Mo Mowlam, Paul Murphy and the rest of her team built goodwill literally on the streets of Northern Ireland and ably negotiated the April 1999 Good Friday agreement.
There was an immediate positive tone about Europe, although in practice policies remained largely pragmatic, particularly after Brown as chancellor ruled out attempting to join the euro with his ‘five economic tests’ in October 1997. A more positive approach was taken to European defence and political cooperation. The St Malo agreement with France was signed by Blair and Jacques Chirac in December 1998. Britain took a leading role in Europe, supported major reforms and with Peter Mandelson as trade commissioner created the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund. After the failure of the attempt to establish an EU constitutional treaty, Labour supported the Lisbon Treaty which made important improvements to the work of the EU, including establishing a permanent president of the council of ministers, and a commissioner who would be responsible for foreign affairs. In 2009 European commissioner Catherine Ashton was appointed the first EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.
Labour strengthened UK efforts for a more effective UN, and other international institutions. The government legislated in 2001 to become one of the first countries to sign up to the 1998 Rome statute of the new International Criminal Court. Voluntary financial contributions to the UN were increased. Deputy prime minister John Prescott was a central figure in negotiating the Kyoto climate change agreement. When Margaret Beckett moved from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Foreign Office in 2006 she added climate change to the department’s list of strategic priorities. Ed Miliband, as secretary of state for energy and climate change, made prodigious efforts to save the Copenhagen meeting in 2009.
Blair’s keynote speech in Chicago on 22 April 1999 set out the criteria for humanitarian intervention, drawing on the history of Rwanda and Bosnia. The speech galvanised the UK’s allies to work together on what became a successful intervention in Kosovo to stop the Serbian ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Albanian population of the province. This intervention was done without security council endorsement. This was followed by the small but highly effective UK intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 to end the civil war, restore the president and rescue hundreds of captured UN peacekeepers.
As early as 1998 the Royal Air Force was engaged in bombing Saddam Hussein’s air defence systems in Iraq alongside the US in operation Desert Fox, to protect the no-fly zones established under Major in 1991. This military action in Iraq was done without a specific UN resolution and Cook was supported in the House of Commons by Liberal Democrat spokesman Menzies Campbell.
Following the 2001 election Cook was moved and became shadow leader of the House of Commons to be replaced at the Foreign Office by Jack Straw. It was under Straw that Labour in government faced its most difficult foreign policy challenges.
When planes flew into the twin towers in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington, on September 11, 2001, they defined the domestic and international debate about ‘the war on terror’ for the next decade. Blair abandoned what was to be a seminal domestic policy speech, pledged solidarity with the US and left the Trades Union Congress early. Robertson persuaded the Nato allies to invoke ‘Article 5’, although the US did not in fact use it to subsequently request military assistance. A decision was made by the UN, with very strong support worldwide and a massive majority in parliament, to eliminate the al-Qaida bases and training camps and remove their host Taliban government in Afghanistan. When Blair and Straw put Britain, as a permanent member of the security council and Nato ally, side by side with George Bush and the US, they were following the long-established ‘hug them close’ approach of successive governments since Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee. A similar, but highly controversial, approach was taken a year later to Iraq following warnings to Saddam about his non-compliance with UN inspections to verify whether he had removed and destroyed his nuclear and chemical weapons programmes.
Whatever the merits of the decision – and I am one who does not apologise for my vote in 2003 to support the Iraqi Kurds and democrats and remove Ba’athist fascism – Iraq caused a massive fissure in the government, in the parliamentary Labour party and in the party. The early principled resignation of Cook was followed several weeks later by the more bizarre resignation of Short. Issues subsequently arose from both Afghanistan and Iraq about captured terrorist suspects, extraordinary rendition, and British citizens and residents in Guantanamo Bay. Later the foreign secretary David Miliband had to apologise to parliament in 2008 for US renditions through Diego Garcia in 2002. The Chilcot inquiry established by Brown in 2009 – and which with regret is yet to report – will no doubt have a lot to say. But despite the massive reputational damage Blair suffered over Iraq he still won his third Labour majority victory two years later.
The 2005 Blair government won the bid for London to host the 2012 Olympics. The Africa commission established by the prime minister in 2004 had published its final report ahead of the Gleneagles G8 summit; its conclusions dominated the agenda and big changes were won on aid, trade and climate change. However, the London terror attacks of 7 July and 21 July 2005 shifted focus and priorities to domestic issues. The situation in Iraq deteriorated due to mistakes made by the US after 2003, and the sectarian authoritarian behaviour of elected Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The UK withdrew from Basra in 2007 in circumstances which are now regarded as a ‘defeat’ by many. The decision to send British forces into Helmand province of Afghanistan in 2006 was also, in retrospect, clearly a mistake.
The Labour government used both soft and hard power to build a more progressive world. Working with our European partners and with our closest ally, the US, important agreements were reached, and real changes begun on international development, on climate change and on international security. Labour encouraged other national governments to end their use of the death penalty and ensured that development in LGBT rights at home were also advanced around the globe. Our military interventions restored democratic government in Sierra Leone, and stopped ethnic cleansing and helped create a new country in Kosovo. Millions of Afghans, particularly women and girls, had access to health and education. While Iraq will loom large over the foreign policy assessment of the last government, it should not dominate, nor distract from, our other achievements. A future Labour government must again work hard to make the world a safer, fairer and more progressive place.
Mike Gapes MP is a former chair of the foreign affairs select committee
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.