Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Britain must be a force for good again

Standing by in cases of war crimes or genocide is not in Britain’s national interest, nor in the interests of the most vulnerable, writes Alison McGovern MP

What do we owe to those who live beyond our shores? Of course we are all appalled when we see civilians starving in a famine, bombed into submission by their own government, or fleeing for their lives from war and poverty, but do we really have the authority or the ability to intervene in the affairs of another country? Do we not always make situations worse?

In 2005 the international community gave a definitive answer to these questions when 172 countries signed up the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. Yes, the world said, we do have obligations and duties towards innocent civilians. Of course, primary responsibility lies with a government and its people. But if that government needs help, we should be ready to provide it. And if a government is manifestly failing to protect its own people, we should do all we can – including using military force when it is the only option – to prevent mass atrocities.

Looking around the world today, and especially at Syria, the commitment that was made so solemnly in 2005 seems a lifetime ago. Far from honouring the resolution, the international community has witnessed the greatest crime of our century and stood transfixed and impotent. The obligations that we all signed up to have barely been mentioned in the debate about how to respond to Bashar al-Assad’s brutality. Appeals to collective responsibility have been drowned out by the callous realpolitik of the UN Security Council where Russia has consistently put its own interests ahead of the lives of innocent Syrians.

The sombre lesson from Syria is that progress within international institutions is never permanent. Battles may be won, but they must be fought again. Our obligations may be written down, but they must be reasserted every generation and in every crisis so they are honoured.

My friend Jo Cox understood this. She spent much of her life, outside parliament and within it, fighting to force the international community as a whole, and the United Kingdom in particular, to uphold our responsibilities to people who need help. She had visited places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan, met the victims of genocide, oppression and starvation. Jo understood that when the world said ‘never again’ this was not just political rhetoric, but a solemn promise from those of us who are safe, powerful, and wealthy to those who are poor, weak, and vulnerable that we would never turn our backs on their suffering or close our ears to their cries for help.

Jo was murdered by a man who shared none of her compassion and opposed her conviction that a great country is one that acts not just in its own interest but out of a sense of moral duty to others. Before she was killed, Jo was working on a paper with a fellow member of parliament from the Conservative party, Tom Tugendhat. Although they had different perspectives on a number of issues, Jo and Tom shared a concern that Britain was becoming more introspective and less engaged in the world. The intention of the report was to combine Jo’s humanitarian experience with Tom’s experience of military operations, and offer some fresh thinking on when or whether the use of military force is warranted.

It was a privilege to be asked by Tom to help finish the report with him. It is published today by Policy Exchange and makes the case for Britain to remain engaged, not to shrink back, but to step up to and continue its tradition of active interventionism and commitment to protect civilians caught up in wars not of their making. Tom and I argue that the willingness to act to prevent mass atrocities – and, by extension, to intervene militarily in exceptional circumstances – is an essential element of Britain’s role in the world. The fundamental belief that Britain can have a positive influence is something that has defined our foreign policy in the past, and should continue to do so.

As we enter 2017 and embark on the process of forging a new role for Britain outside the EU, our international obligations must be at the heart of our thinking. Trade is of course important, but a truly ‘global Britain’ has to mean so much more than a mercantilist island floating off the shore of Europe. In an ever-more connected world, it is dangerous to believe that the UK can ignore fundamental challenges facing our friends and allies. We cannot. To stand by in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide is not in Britain’s national interest, nor in the interests of the weakest and most vulnerable in the world.

Jo said Syria would be ‘our generation’s test’. It is a test we are failing. Standing by our commitments is never easy, but with renewed determination and real leadership we can demonstrate that Britain is still a global force for good and that in the darkest night there are people in the world who will keep the promises they made in the full light of day.


Alison McGovern is member of parliament for Wirral South and chair of Progress. She tweets at @Alison_McGovern

You can read The Cost of Doing Nothing here



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Alison McGovern MP

is chair of Progress


  • Because our past interventions have done so much good.

    Are we back in the days of “failed states”? Of “an Axis of Evil”, but now constituted by Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Iran and Sudan?The United States is currently bombing the first five countries on that list. Thank you, Barack Obama. It is no wonder that there is a refugee crisis. Although there is none such from Iran.

    Nor has anyone from any of those countries killed an American in America (if, in at least the Iranian case, anywhere) during the present century. And nor is it possible to tell in any conclusive way, if at all, from people’s passports whether or not they belong to a religious minority. The constitutionality of doing so in the United States would in any case be very highly questionable. Furthermore, each of those seven countries contains some very colourful religious minorities indeed.

    Fight fire with water. Not with waterboarding. If this Government does indeed have an absolute objection to torture, then it is doing a lot better than the Blair Government ever did. It ought to be funny, but it is not, to see today’s fits of the vapours on the part of people who supported George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who would have supported Hillary Clinton, who did so when she was Secretary of State, and who wanted David Miliband to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Their only objection to torture is to the vague suggestion by Donald Trump that he might use it.

  • I would be less worried by this contribution if it was to argue for taking each prospective intervention on its own individual merits. To make a case for intervention in the abstract, i.e when there is no imminent pressure for us to to take any view at all looks so unhealthily like a commitment without a cause.

    In my opinion we do really need to be on the alert for the zealotry which has been the roots of many of the UKs past actions.

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