In the 1950s, as Labour struggled to recover from the defeat of Clement Attlee’s post-war government, Richard Crossman observed that the party had lost its way not only because it lacked a map, “but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers.”
As Labour seeks again to find its sense of direction following two humbling election defeats, there is now no more important area for clear and fresh thinking than in our approach to foreign affairs. Some take the view that it doesn’t matter too much what oppositions say about the world beyond our shores: there are ‘no votes in foreign policy’. I profoundly disagree. In this parliament, foreign policy is at the forefront of political debate. If Labour is to become the party of government again, voters need to be clear that we will stand up for British interests and our values abroad.
The party is now rightly having a wide-ranging debate on foreign and defence policy. It will examine some difficult issues – like the nuclear deterrent – that are crucial to the party’s long-term renewal, but it also needs to look at the changing world around us.
First, we must apply Labour’s values to the world of today. Labour played a huge role in creating the rules-based international order after the second world war, and we must remain committed to the UN, NATO, and other global institutions and to remaining in the EU. The forthcoming EU referendum will be the biggest choice the British people have faced about our place in the world for 40 years; are we going to turn inwards or remain an outward-facing nation?
Interdependence defines the condition of humankind today more clearly than at any other time in human history. Our task is to balance the necessity for international co-operation – whether on climate change or financial regulation or peace and security – with the thirst that people have for power to be devolved to local communities so that they can take more decisions for themselves. There are voices for isolationism in British and European politics. Labour should resist them.
Second, British foreign policy over the last decade has been conducted in the long shadow of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Our foreign policy must learn the lessons of that conflict, but not be shackled by it. It should not be a reason to retreat from the world and our responsibilities in it, or to rely on others to fight for us.
Third, we face a host of new and emerging challenges – from cyber-attacks to migration and from global warming to the threat of Daesh. To address them we to need to look outwards to the new global powers and emerging economies while reinforcing our relationship with existing allies. The Conservative party’s approach to foreign policy has diminished Britain in the eyes of the world. Defined by inward-looking nationalism and isolationism, it has reduced our standing with friends and allies. David Cameron has retreated from European co-operation, reversed his promise to show leadership on climate change, and has too often seen foreign policy as a sales opportunity.
This is why it is more critical than ever that the British left sets out a forward–looking plan for Britain’s role in the world based on: democracy, human rights, development and the fight against poverty. And we need to inspire the country and the world by showing how change can happen: to be, as Labour’s 1945 manifesto put it, “practical-minded men and women”. That is the task we face and I hope that these essays will play an important part in encouraging that debate and developing Labour’s foreign policy at a critical time for our party and our country.
Hilary Benn is shadow foreign secretary and MP for Leeds Central. This piece is the foreword to Outward to the World: How the left’s foreign policy can face the future. Read the full pamphlet, published in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, here.