Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Panama Papers: time for a foreign policy framework

Two events call for Labour to revisit our ethical foreign policy and fit it for the 21st century.

Yesterday’s release of the ‘Panama Papers’ highlights the leading role that some British Overseas Territories play in the tax haven industry. Today’s decision by the International Criminal Court on the future prosecution of William Ruto, vice-president of Kenya, highlights the problems of corruption that continue to beset this key country of the Commonwealth.

Both are the playing-out of longstanding foreign policy pressures in which the United Kingdom is often an absent or sleeping partner in resolving some of the legacies of empire.

The British Overseas Territories that feature in the tax haven debacle, most notably the British Virgin Islands, were the ones that managed to build themselves an economy based on offshore banking. The rest, apart from the British Antarctic Territory, have been afflicted by war, scandal, misfortune, and in the case of Montserrat, natural catastrophe.

Most of them lack the economic base that can provide a reasonable standard of living for their residents. Some have struggled with governance. A number lack much-needed infrastructure: St Helena’s new airport opens this year, replacing the fortnightly boat on which it still relies for its links with the rest of the world.

For the Commonwealth, Kenya is the linchpin of east Africa, the natural centre for many international companies, intergovernmental associations and development agencies and a key ally in the struggle against terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Yet that country’s performance, so crucial for the region, has been held back by a history of corruption scandals, most clearly documented in the Githongo dossier.

In response to these, Labour needs more than finger-pointing. We need a comprehensive foreign and development policy which, among other things:

  • Recognises the changes in world poverty, and the different policy instruments needed to tackle inequalities within as well as between countries.
  • Gives fresh impetus to our involvement in the Commonwealth, now under the dynamic new leadership of Patricia Scotland. Many Commonwealth countries are at heart of the debate about governance, climate change and poverty.
  • Joins up foreign and development policy to provide substantial investment to kick-start economic diversification in those countries for which the UK has a continuing responsibility.
  • Strengthens the governance and transparency of intergovernmental organisations, including the United Nations and European Union so that their operations can withstand scrutiny.
  • Builds on the international conventions that tackle corruption and improve governance.
  • Harnesses the international activism evident in the response to world events like the migration crisis.

Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy, now coming up to its 20th anniversary, provided Labour with a framework within which we could view our relations with the wider world. In the absence of such a framework, the Tories revert to tribal rows about Europe and we revert to rows about nuclear disarmament. We both agree on the need to overcome Islamist terrorism and to deal with the migrant crisis.

But there is a bigger world to be won over, and for that we need a framework that sets out Labour’s foreign policy goals.


Sally Keeble is a former minister at the Department for International Development. She tweets @Sally_Keeble


Photo: fsse-info

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Sally Keeble

is a former minister and former member of the Treasury select committee. She tweets @Sally_Keeble


  • This article ignores the significant role facilitated by the Crown Dependencies: the Isle of Man and the Bailwicks of Jersey and Guernsey in facilitating large scale tax avoidance/evasion.

    Unwritten constitutions and conventions, including the Framework for Development agreements, signed on May 2007 and December 2008, allow for a high degree of autonomy and require consultation between the respective governments. However, this autonomy, in matters other than defence, is not absolute and UK law can be imposed, as a last resort, with the consent of the Queen.

  • Up here, past experience teaches us that the trail from Panama leads back to Seaton Carew. Sergei Roldugin should offer to buy British Steel. As should Donald Trump. Things would move pretty damn quickly if that happened.

    Seriously, though, The Guardian and the BBC have led with name of Vladimir Putin, which does not appear in the Panama Papers. Unlike the name of David Cameron’s late father, whom the BBC spent all day describing as “law-abiding” without anything so vulgar as evidence. The BBC that deliberately saved Cameron on the day of the pig story has deliberately saved him again yesterday.

    Oh, well, it is time to exercise the United Kingdom’s right of self-determination by declaring ourselves independent of the Overseas Territories, albeit with an annual grant of one billion pounds to each of them in perpetuity ( ). As part of that legislation, the Chagos Islands would be returned to their people, and that people would be returned to those Islands. In any case, why are we holding on to places that use the US dollar, as the Caribbean tax havens do? If they love the Americans so much, then the Americans can have them.

    And it is time to hold a referendum in each of the Crown Dependencies ( ). One option would be full independence. The other would be incorporation into the United Kingdom, with the historic legislature retained as a devolved body. There would be no Third Way.

    Then we could get down to the Corporation of the City of London.

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