Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy in a Chatham House webinar this afternoon.
When I took up this post 12 months ago, I made it my mission in my first year to bring about a values-based approach to China and a robust approach to Russia. And to waste no time building relationships with leaders across the world who share our aims to strengthen democracy at home and defend it abroad. It is a challenging age, and Britain must step up. But today I want to talk to you about something else – to lay out what lies at the core of our approach to foreign policy, to explain what drives us now and will drive us in government.
And it starts in Halifax, where this time last year I was in a café in my wellies in torrential rain listening to the owner in tears as she described the second set of floods that had devastated her business in three years. She didn’t mention COP 26 once. But this year we will host a global conference where we will choose whether to allow harm and loss to be inflicted on more families like hers – or choose change. It is a stark reminder that the global and the local are one and the same or as CLR James put it: genuine internationalism must be based on the national scene.
Visit any town in the UK and you see, in the everyday lives of millions of people, examples like this that should sound the alarm. The man in my surgery shocked to his core, cheated out of his life savings by a criminal gang whose tentacles stretch across the globe. The football fans who fought for a year to save their loved local club after it was thrown away for a gambling debt by financiers on the other side of the world. The steel workers who stand to lose their jobs because the get-rich-quick activities of a financial whizzkid with unparalleled access to government created a bubble that eventually burst on the other side of the world.
The world beyond our shores, and our ability to mould and shape it, affects the lives of people at home to an extraordinary degree. Why then, more than the economy, education, or health, is foreign policy so often discussed and agreed in closed rooms without reference to the people affected? The debates are separate. The worlds are disconnected. When was the last time our great foreign policy institutions debated in towns across Britain? I want to make the case today that this gulf is a direct threat to the security and prosperity of our country.
That it has cost us the support and consent of the British people for our activities overseas, holding back our ability to make positive and lasting change in the world. And it has led us to make choices that have caused nothing short of devastation at home, writing off people and places in every nation and region of the UK and tugging at what Orwell called the invisible chain that binds our nations together.
We seek power in order to change this and I want to set out today how we will do it. Beginning with a rejection of the uncritical embrace of economic globalisation in the 1980s – a model that handed so much power to capital that by the late 90s it had convinced the Labour Government that this model of globalisation was not a choice but a fate. It ushered in an era of flexible labour markets and deregulation “to untie the hands of business” as the then Prime Minister described it in his Chicago speech. In a sink or swim world, those who were not “swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change” found themselves on the wrong side of history.
And this is how places like Jackson, Kentucky made memorable to millions through JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Wigan in Lancashire, known globally for Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, came to be stripped of their vitality, their purpose, their inheritance – seen no longer as contributors, but as the problem itself. Their wages too high, their demands too many. So the work was transferred to countries where this “problem” was removed and the dignity of labour became a private not political concern with questions of ethics handed to the market to decide.
Less than two decades later on both sides of the Atlantic, the people in those places delivered their verdict on that approach. But four years on from those political earthquakes and where are we now? More adrift than ever in a world defined by greater challenges, chiefly the rise of China, the climate emergency, and new forms of conflict. With a foreign policy that has failed to defend the interests of people across our four nations – pandering to the Trump Administration even as shattering tariffs were imposed on the Scotch Whisky Industry, recklessly cavalier about the impact of a paper-thin Brexit agreement on the Welsh farming industry, shamefully using the Good Friday Agreement as a bargaining chip threatening the security of people in Northern Ireland – and slowly, little by little, undermining support for the union itself.
This is a government whose global Britain policy was silent on the deep discontent in towns across the country. The latest big idea is to relocate 500 civil servants from London to Darlington. But where is their assessment of the assets and potential in Darlington? This is a town that gave the world the first passenger steam railway, an engineering company that built bridges across the world from Sydney to the Humber and lays claim to the creation of our country’s first national newspaper. It once stood at the centre of the world. Where is their future plan that matches that proud history?
Instead of healing these wounds the government has sought to weaponise them, based on an imagined idea of working-class communities that is utterly at odds with the views and aspirations of those who live in them. So, instead of good jobs and fair trade we get wave machines to deter asylum seekers, pork-barrel grant schemes handed out to high streets by politicians who never leave Whitehall and ministers who wrap themselves in flags and berate the BBC for failing to sufficiently do the same. It shows a contempt for people reminiscent of the time Grant Shapps famously promised beer and bingo, “helping hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy”.
And in the end I think this is the fatal flaw in the government’s approach. At heart I think they believe that foreign policy has absolutely nothing to do with people in Darlington or Selcoats. But our relationship with China is more central to the factory operative earning £8.72 an hour in Stockton than any high street grant. And for all the faux flag waving there is no patriotic vision for those people or places.
For all the talk of levelling up, the grubby details emerging about Greensill Capital shine a spotlight on a government that appears more than content to allow this system to persist, a system which allows a chosen few with unparalleled access to power to milk the system until it breaks. And they can take risks happy in the knowledge that if they win, they win big but if they lose, it is never them, but people in towns like Rotherham and Hartlepool who will shoulder the appalling losses. Perhaps this is why, in the end, they are so relaxed about a decade which has left us with dwindling influence abroad and weakened foundations at home.
I am here today to tell you that it doesn’t have to be like this. We can build an agenda for Britain that matches the ambition of the people in it – big and generous, not small and petty – measured not in the number of our flags but in the health of our children, the strength of our communities, the dignity of our workforce and the security of our nation. That will be the benchmark for the success of our foreign policy.
So first and foremost the next Labour government will make national security our top priority. To defend the British people from new and traditional threats we will protect our armed forces, take action to defend our democracy and work with partners across NATO and the EU to deal with Russian aggression. The defence and security of the British people is written into the Labour Party’s constitution and it is part of our DNA.
Second, we will reset the approach of the last 40 years and take long overdue domestic and international action to rebuild the economic security of Britain’s people and the places they call home.
Third, we will make environmental security our priority. Climate change threatens the future of our planet but it directly affects the lives and prosperity of working-class people across this country, and the wider world, right now. Modern socialism must see it as a central pursuit of social justice, not an addition to it.
Those are our priorities, but how to achieve them? Firstly we will restore Britain’s reputation as a consistent reliable partner. To steal a phrase from Lincoln, “the world is complex and interlinked but important principles may and must be inflexible”. Never on our watch will the Good Friday Agreement be used as a bargaining chip. For Labour it is and remains an article of faith.
We will do the heavy lifting needed to reinvest in our relationships across the world. This is work that Keir and I have already started, looking first and foremost to our neighbours in Europe. The dividing line in British politics is no longer ‘do we do Brexit’, but ‘do we do it well or do it badly’. But we have a government that is less interested in making its deal work than we are. The needlessly antagonistic approach pursued by both sides has cost us all, so we will seek to build new points of “depth and connection” with our closest neighbours.
Starting from the view that close bilateral relations with European countries are enhanced by a constructive relationship with the EU itself. They must respect our decision to stand outside of the EU just as we must respect the importance of the European project to our friends and neighbours. But from sanctions and trade to financial regulation and climate change the EU is an important partner and we should seek creative ways to work together. And we will seek a relationship with the USA built on areas of future co-operation not nostalgia. Building a fairer global economy and developing clean energy to create jobs in places that once powered the world and will do so again.
We will seek to breathe new life into multilateral institutions and we have begun this work through the UN Commission led by Lord Collins. Our commitment to the NATO alliance is unshakeable. We reject the idea that alliances can be purely transactional. They are built on solidarity and survive only if they can pass that test. And we will pursue a new economic statecraft to help bridge the divide between the global and the local.
We have focused on the potential for the Chinese political model to become more dominant. But we have paid far too little attention to the consequences of China’s economic model for the British people – a model which relies on low working standards, poor wages and unfair trade practices to drive growth. This will be a priority for Labour. As my colleague Anneliese Dodds has pointed out, British companies have some of the weakest protections of any in the world, be it against dumping or the use of slave labour or other unacceptable practices.
So we will set about building a trade policy fit for the 21st century: that prioritises fairness as well as market access, that protects the environment, and champions labour rights from Bolton to Bangalore; we will clean up the dirty money that flows through the City of London and sustains authoritarian regimes, close tax loopholes and bear down on tax havens. Working with trade unions and likeminded governments to defend working people the world over from the race to the bottom and levelling the playing field for those incredible bricks and mortar businesses who are rooted in our communities and invest in our people.
And we will start a new national conversation about our place in the world and the sort of country we want to be, grounded in all our nations and communities, drawing on the many great organisations, movements and institutions who are prepared to lift their eyes beyond their own horizons to consider the better country and better world I know we can build. This is how we will build and sustain the support to act as a force for good in the world and earn the support and consent of people at home.
This is what our patriotism looks like. A country at ease with itself, that knows what it is for, that can deliver on our values at home and has the confidence to stand for them overseas. That invests in its people and puts them at the centre of our vision for the country because in the end it is from them that power is derived and must return. As Ernest Bevin put it: ‘after all the thought you can give to it, the only repository of faith I have been able to find … is the common people’. That is what underpins our approach to foreign policy. It has been a long time coming for so many people who for decades have longed to see hope flickering back to life. That is why success is the only outcome we are prepared to consider.