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James Byrne SP: IPPR Foreign Policy Speech

James Byrne

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James Byrne, Shadow Foreign Secretary, gave a speech to The Institute for Public Policy Research on Labour’s proposals for a progressive Foreign and Defence Policy

It is a privilege to be able to speak here today.

In May 1997, former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who sadly passed away in 2005, said that foreign policy should have an ‘ethical dimension’ and that we must 'put human rights at the heart of foreign policy'. I absolutely agree. Robin was a man of integrity, who stood up for what he believed in, even at the expense of his political career when he voted against military action in Iraq in 2003. His impassioned speech following his resignation from cabinet was one of the finest I have seen as a Member of Parliament and our politics is much worse off without him around.

Our Party has had huge successes over the last decade, from Sure Start to the minimum wage, but our party has also made mistakes during our time in government. There have been bad decisions and there have been things which I and Jim Connelly have both vocally opposed in the past. What we must do is learn from those mistakes, and my job as Shadow Foreign Secretary of our government-in-waiting is to analyse the world around us and our relationship with it, and begin to build a new, progressive foreign policy.

Since the second world war and the fall of the British Empire, Britain has had 2 powerful partners, our friends in the European Union as it is known today and the “special relationship” with the United States. This, along with the role of international governance by the United Nations, as been what has shaped our foreign policy for the last 50 years.

The European Union has provided a basis for Trade and for our economic model. It has provided us a chance to grow and to work with our European allies on a wide array of issues, from workers rights to environmentalism, and the United States has dominated our defence policy through the era of the cold war and western interventionism. These relationships remain absolutely vital.

But that does not mean there cannot be criticisms. Our relationship with the United States is based on the shared values that both our people’s hold, and our shared aspirations. However, when the United States makes a mistake or does something that we profoundly disagree with, going against our shared values, we must not shy away from holding them accountable, that is what a good friendship is. In recent years, the special relationship has left Britain in an unfairly unequal position. That, under Labour, will change because that is what a progressive, 21st century internationalism entails.

Similarly with the European Union, it is vital we have a good relationship with the EU and use it to advance both the interests of the British public, but also the European and global community. That means we must do what we can to improve the EU when we believe it falls short. Whether it is the domination of corporate interests or issues surrounding democracy and accountability of figures at the top, we must call out what we disagree with, and work within the EU to make it better, to shift the EU to a European model based on social equality and redistribution of wealth with additional democratic reforms to provide more accountability. The European Union is vital for Britain’s economy and trade as well as to tackle the climate crisis, but that does not mean we should shy away from criticising the EU, far from it. That makes it all the more vital we transform the European Union to a new model because that is what a progressive, 21st century internationalism entails.

Under this new leadership, our party welcomed the announcements of efforts to begin withdrawing British forces from Iraq, and supports further withdrawals so long as it is safe to do so, as we also support for similar actions in Afghanistan. But the western interventions of recent years have proved the need to build a new foreign policy based upon peace, cooperation, mutual respect, fair trade and adherence to international law. These values must absolutely be at the heart of our foreign policy, if we are to build a foreign policy fit for the 21st century. It is clear that the current way of dealing with the international community is failing, whether it is wars considered widely illegal by the vast array of international opinion or turning a blind eye to abuses when it is convenient. We need a new path as we begin this century. That is why, instead of being a country of military intervention, the next Labour government will make us a conflict preventer and resolver. That is why I am announcing today that the next Labour government will establish a Ministry for Peace at the foreign office to use Britain’s experience to negotiating the Good Friday Agreement to transform Britain from a military aggressor to a conflict preventer and resolver. That is what a progressive, 21st century internationalism entails.

As stated earlier, the next Labour government will follow the example of Robin Cook to put human rights first. That is why the next Labour government will end arms sales to countries where there are concerns that International Humanitarian Law would be violated, and Labour will not do any new arms deals with countries on the foreign office’s “countries of major concern” list. On top of this, Labour will end the hypocrisy whereby Britain is silent on human rights abuses committed by governments seen as “friendly”, such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and Colombia. We must be absolutely consistent in standing up to human rights across the globe because that is what a progressive, 21st century internationalism entails.

Whilst William Croft seeks to sabre rattle over Iran and threatens to break international law, this leadership absolutely reaffirms our commitment to abiding by international law which has been so vital in preserving relative peace across the globe since the Second World War. Despite the dangerous antics of the current government, spearheaded by an out of control foreign secretary who has brought us close to the precipice of another intervention in the Middle East and dangerously close, if gone ahead as he has stated, to breaking international law, Labour has continued to hold this government to the commitments that our country made after the Second World War as part of the UN Charter. The Charter states “We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”. That was the promise of the generation of war heroes to us, and we must not betray that promise again to future generations. We must stand for international law, not perpetual war. That is what a progressive, 21st century internationalism entails.

Finally, one of the defining issues of the 21st century is to be the threat of a climate catastrophe. I have said before that climate change is the greatest threat the world has faced since the Nazis. I believe that we must be world leaders in the fight to tackle climate change, just as we were in the fight against the evils of fascism, and just like Clement Attlee’s visionary government rebuilt Britain from the rubble of the Blitz, we must rebuild our country as one based on a sustainable green economy with social justice at its heart. But we cannot just be inward looking with our approach to the climate crisis, we must be world leaders, using our position in the European Union and our unique position in the international stage to export a green revolution across Europe and the world, to fuel sustainable development, and to work towards making Europe the world’s first carbon-neutral continent. That is what a progressive, 21st century internationalism entails.

We live in a world of danger, of death and destruction. It is easy to let that weigh you down and to give up hope. But it does not have to be this way. We can begin to build a new world, a fairer and more just world. Let us grasp this opportunity to rebuild the world in the way that we want to see it, the world we want our children to grow up in. Let us eliminate war and conflict, stand up for human rights, tackle racial, gender, sexual and economic inequalities across the world and leave the foundations of an environmentally sustainable future. Let us build a new world, with a progressive, 21st century internationalism.

James Byrne MP

Member of Parliament for Hackney South and Shoreditch (1983-)

Shadow First Secretary of State (2007-)

Shadow Foreign Secretary (2007-)

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