Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s post-Brexit foreign policy

Labour need to rebuild Britain’s reputation closer to home before they are once again respected enough to take action on the world stage, warns Sam Alvis

Global affairs are back on the agenda. The Tories are using Brexit to launch an ‘Empire 2.0’ strategy, misguided both in direction and naming. Foreign policy is also one of the Labour leadership’s most vulnerable areas. Ill-timed photos and long-held opinions have them out of step with much of the British public, and a smarter Conservative campaign could exploit some precarious positions.

Unfortunately voters are wising up to foreign policy just as Britain trashes its reputation abroad. Beyond a foreign secretary making borderline xenophobic, but at the very least undiplomatic statements, leaving the European Union has left Britain friendless. Take the case of the Chagos Islands. In June, Mauritius successfully passed a United Nations resolution referring their disputed ownership to The Hague following decolonisation in the 60s. The United Kingdom lost the vote 94 to 15, after former EU allies abstained.

The Labour manifesto had just ambition to address conflicts in the Yemen and Syria, as well as problems in Libya and Israel, while a minister for peace is laudable. But both are folly in the current climate. Britain does not have the weight to pursue such policies. And that is before accounting Trump’s next, gamble and what more hand-holding would do to our reputation.

Labour values are the perfect way to rebuild Britain’s standing abroad. Our history of universal human rights and international solidarity are excellent foundations to work from. But the leadership need to recognise that this has to begin much closer to home. Neighbours are our most important allies, and are the relationships most at risk from the Tories attitude to Brexit. Europe is also where some of the greatest threats to British security lie. There are four areas Labour should address to protect the UK and our friends in Europe:

Supporting the rule of law

Turkey’s slide into illiberalism under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accelerated at an alarming rate. Since a failed military coup in July 2016, Erdoğan has seized power through a rigged referendum and imprisoned any opposition. The EU has spoken out, with Germany in particular standing up to the jailing of its citizens. The Tories desperate for trade are silent. But the EU is also constrained by their deal on migrants, which relieved pressure on member states, and intra-EU relations. A Labour government should use strong words and sanctions to support the EU. Work visas and continued trade with the UK are a strong carrot for Erdoğan. Labour should make them contingent on the rule of law.

Likewise a Labour government can be more outspoken on Polish attempts to seize control of their independent judiciary. The UK and Poland have a shared history and were strong allies within the EU. The EU is loath to punish Poland at a time when unity is paramount, but the UK is more flexibility. Guaranteeing existing rights to EU citizens would buy favour with the Polish government, and losing British support for infrastructure projects and joint security would be greater than the reward of judiciary control.

Migrant crisis

The migrant crisis has not gone. Italy and Greece and under increasing pressure and a new influx is straining relationships even between more liberal member states. Emmanuel Macron is working in Libya to stem the flow, while Angela Merkel has made stabilising north African countries central to Germany’s G7 presidency. A Labour government should unashamedly support these initiatives. The UK has the intelligence and economic clout to make them a success, but cannot be seen to lead. Key EU states must see Britain’s actions as a sign of it’s continued to desire to work together. Stability and a reducing terrorism in north Africa is in all of Europe’s interests.

Support should go hand in hand with Labour pushing for observer status on EU foreign policy. Feeding into joint actions and offering its intelligence through information sharing. This is something even senior Tories are pushing for with recent statements by former foreign secretary, William Hague, and former chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Crispin Blunt.


Vladimir Putin was delighted with Brexit. Anything to undermine international institutions can help bring vulnerable eastern European states into his sphere of influence. A weak EU makes Russian partnership more attractive to states like Albania, and lower incentives for them to address corruption or human rights.

The Labour leadership must stand up to Russia, and stop appearing on Russia Today, a state-run propaganda mouthpiece. Labour must state its support for Russian sanctions, as well as aiding reform in eastern states, bringing them closer to western Europe. Labour should also find ways to work with other states against Russia interference in elections.

These three areas are a stepping stone to addressing the grand challenges in the Labour manifesto. The leadership need to recognise the reality of international affairs and give their vision practicality and realism. Labour’s values will be integral to rejuvenating the UK’s international relationships, and ultimately protecting security at home and abroad.


Sam Alvis is a former Labour party staffer now working in research, innovation, security and international relations. He tweets at @SamAlvis2


Credit: Richard Gardner

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Sam Alvis

is a former Labour party staffer now working in research, innovation, security and international relations


  • It is illuminating that Alvis’prime, indeed sole, example of the UK being sadly isolated is one of the most disgraceful pieces of British imperialist arrogance and deceit in modern times: the expulsion from Diego Garcia of the Chagos islanders. Was – and is- this an example of the UK practising universal human rights and international solidarity (a sales point in Alvis’ view)? In fact, no other explanation is needed for the thorough – and welcome – defeat of the UK at the UN than John Bull’s appalling behaviour in this matter – in Robin Cook’s words “one of the most sordid and morally indefensible (episodes) I have ever known” is enough to account for this isolation.. The use of Diego Garcia to collude with the US in its kidnap and torture programme, misleadingly disavowed by David Miliband when Foreign Secretary, does not exactly sanitize the British record. (I attach a summary of, and sections from, the opinion on the issue written by Geoffrey Robert.son); nor does Miliband’s professedly cynical institution of a nature reserve to continue the oppression of the Chagossians
    But what explains Alvis’ strange posturing? The clue lies in his oblique attack on Corbyn’s ‘ill-timed photos and long-held views’ which are allegedly ‘out of step with much of the British public’. Alvis gives no evidence for this claim, nor for his assumption that Labour Party arguments cannot reshape outdated imperialist, World War II or NATO-era prejudices. A thorough rethink on many aspects of British foreign policy is long overdue; and repudiating Alvis’s assumption that UK policies – including Labour policies on Diego Garcia – are sacrosanct would be a good start.

    Geoffrey Robertson : summary and extracts of opinion.
    Revelations of torture and rendition at Diego Garcia, in the Chagos Archipelago, over which the UK claims sovereignty, are the latest twist in a history of colonial dispossession, international unlawfulness, and willing capitulation to U.S. strategic demands. At a critical time – the US lease expiring in 2016 – this article examines the validity of the UK’s claim to sovereignty. Analysis of the pre-independence colonial history of the region, the unlawful severance of the Chagos Islands, and the questionable consent given by Mauritian authorities, shows that the UK’s claim to sovereignty over the Chagos Islands is weaker than that of Mauritius. The UK’s deceitful justification for the forced removal of the Chagossians ensured that the US military base was built in breach of their right to self-determination. But the UK has been complicit in U.S. breaches of international law and recent evidence points to its direct involvement in the use of Diego Garcia to “render” a Libyan dissident to torture in Tripoli. The UK strives to deny effective remedies for its unlawful behaviour: do its victims – and its counter-claimant to sovereignty, the government of Mauritius – have any avenues for redress?
    There can be no doubt that the FCO well knew it was acting in defiance of international law. An internal FCO minute of 11 May 1964 admitted, according to Justice Ouseley, that:
    The partial disruption of a nations’ territorial integrity was incompatible with the UN Charter. Article 73 of the Charter…required “non-self-governing territories” to be administered according to the principle that the interests of the inhabitants were paramount.{summary}
    As the UK was well aware, it could hardly serve the interests of the inhabitants to send them into exile. The UN Committee (No 24) dealing with decolonization, had to be fobbed off with the pretence that there were no permanent inhabitants in the Chagos islands, only peripatetic labourers. Over the next few years, this pretence would be maintained, despite the FCO’s knowledge that it was a false statement made to avoid the legal and political consequences of acknowledging the birthrights of the Chagossians.{GR}
    The initial litigation by the Chagossian families was successful in 2000,59 when the expulsion of the Chagossians was ruled illegal under UK law by the High Court. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called the 1965 episode “one of the most sordid and morally indefensible I have ever known” and ordered a feasibility study as to how the Chagossians might be enabled to return (but not to Diego Garcia, where the Americans were too firmly ensconced). In 2002, they were accorded a right to British passports, and many came to live in England. Under American pressure after Mr. Cook’s untimely death, the UK government in 2004 overturned the High Court’s verdict by another Order in Council (made again without reference to Parliament) which extinguished their right to return. The Americans were duly grateful for this abuse of executive power. Their statement read:
    We believe that an attempt to resettle any of the islands on the Chagos Archipelago would severely compromise Diego Garcia’s unparalleled security and have a deleterious impact on our military operations, and we appreciate the steps taken by HMG to prevent such resettlement”{GR}
    Ben Cosin

  • What precisely are the threats to the security f the people of the UK from which Alvis aims to protect us? The most obvious threat would appear to be terrorism, mostly arising from widespread Muslim resentment at the decades-long offensives of ‘the West’ against majority Muslim countries, reaching back to the Israeli offensive against and occupation of Lebanon in 1982 and beyond. But Alvis’ analysis of the ‘reality of international affairs’ does not appear to include any allusion to, let alone comprehension of such episodes as Britain’s collusive part in the 1956 Suez aggression against Egypt or in the many US-led interventions into the Muslim world. It is a relief that Alvis does not explicitly propose any further aggressions like that against Iraq and Libya, which have produced such disastrous consequences – in the case of Libya, an enormous increase in the lamentable – and destabilizing – refugee crisis.
    But it is within Europe at large that Alvis sees the most serious threats to the security of the British state and such of its ambitions as he and perhaps many ‘progressives’ share (e.g. re Diego Garcia above).His solution? increased sanctions against Russia in response to Russian actions he does not specify. These will (perhaps are designed to) increase Russian hostility and hence further instability in Eastern Europe. Such sanctions – which are a form of war – emerge simply from arbitrary diktats without reference to any of the international institutions or the rule of law Alvis pretends to revere. US sanctions target not only Russia (provoking a justified German and other European resentment against their protectionist effects vis a vis vital natural gas supplies) but all firms and individuals who infringe in any way the equally arbitrary and vindictive US sanctions against Iran. They constitute a serious bid to establish US full spectrum dominance not only in respect of armaments ( which are being further ramped up by the construction of the US naval base at Ochakov next to the Crimean part of Russia) but in respect of financial instruments.Alvis proposes to intensify this ‘anaconda strategy’ against a power with a wide range of nuclear weapons. What risks does Russia now pose to the UK (apart from , according to Alvis, the continuation of corruption and human rights abuses in’Albania and similar countries)? None; but the anaconda strategy which includes the vaunted overthrow of Yanukovych by Victoria Nuland’s ‘National Endowment for Democracy’ – another example of the US bid of world domination – and the supply of arms and training to the national-socialist influenced and revanchist Kyiv regime does threaten serious – let us hope not nuclear – conflict. It is this threat that Alvis’ sanctions serve to intensify. And to what end? To force the people of Crimea to a fourth referendum after the three in which they have expressed their desire to leave Ukraine and cleave to Russia – their historic home until Khrushchev’s diktat of 1954? Or to force them to rejoin Ukraine by threatening them with HMS Elizabeth II? And does he hope to use the same means to force the people of Luhansk and Donetsk to submit to a regime which has deprived their mother-tongue – Russian of its equal official status?-
    Nor should Alvis’ proposals to interfere into Poland’s and Turkey’s internal affairs be left underided – for derision would be the most appropriate response to such a proconsular ukases. .

    Lastly, but most importantly, the despatch of British troops outside the UK needs constant scrutiny, especially in view of the ever present danger of mission creep, a process which withdraws foreign and defense policy ever further from democratic control or even influcnce by the people of the UK. NATO in particular, which since has extended the ‘North Atlantic’ to central Asia and possibly to the North West Pacific, is mission creep par excellence. We must congratulate Jeremy Corbyn for querying whether the dubious clause 5 of the NATO treaty ought to precipitate us into an attack on North Korea. – a genuinely restabilizing critique on his part.It should presage further questioning of entangling alliances as well as vainglorious ‘internationalist’ – in fact neo-colonialist initiatives These certainly include the renewed call to send yet more troops to Afghanistan – with what aim in view? We await enlightenment from the war parties, and anticipate some sober evaluation from Mr Corbyn, Ms Thornberry and Ms Griffith in this seventeenth year of the US’ longest war.

Sign up to our daily roundup email