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Britain in the World

Part of Fifa – in the House of Commons at 5:50 pm on 1st June 2015.

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Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston 5:50 pm, 1st June 2015

It is an honour to follow Suella Fernandes. I was struck by the fact that her father arrived in 1968, and I arrived some six years later under my own steam but also carrying only a suitcase. I was an immigrant by choice rather than necessity, but what brings us together is a supranational concept of being British, so whether born in these isles or having decided to live in these isles, we can call ourselves British. That is something we should never forget, and it takes me to the subject of my speech.

The Queen’s Speech talks about Britain in the world. I wonder whether the time has come for us to pause occasionally and see how the world sees us. The divergence in the way we see ourselves and the rest of the world and how the world looks upon us is becoming greater. Elections are quite often viewed in Germany—the country of my birth—through journalists following me around on the campaign trail. Invariably, when I do radio interviews, one of the first questions I am asked is, “Well, Mrs Stuart, just how long have you been on these isles?” I suddenly realised that for the rest of mainland Europe, these are islands, whereas we have largely forgotten that we are an island. The most telling evidence of that forgetting was the mention of our maritime surveillance aircraft and the fact that the strategic defence review did not start by saying, “We are an island, therefore we need a navy.” That is part of our forgetting who we are.

We assume that we have natural advantages, one of which is the English language. I want to warn Members. There was a wonderful programme not long ago in which a young American woman attributed the breakdown of her marriage to an Englishman to the simple fact that she did not speak English English. For example, she would say, “I would like children” and he would say, “Yes, let’s think about that.” She would suggest that they move to another part of the country and he would say, “Yes, we can discuss that.” She said it took her about 20 years to realise that this was just a very polite English way of saying, “No. No chance. I just don’t want to have an argument.”

When we talk about hard power and soft power, we assume that part of our soft power is the export of our culture, our values and the English language, but just listen to many an interview. The English language as spoken on these islands is no longer necessarily the English that is spoken in the rest of Europe and at many of the negotiating tables. We think of ourselves as being, as of right, permanent members of the UN Security Council. Yes, in terms of the institutional structures, we are there as of right, but if we do such things as lecture NATO members in Wales about not meeting the 2% standard on spending and tell them that they are no-good crummy allies by failing to do so, when we ourselves fall below the 2% standard, the gap widens between our posturing and the reality, and our credibility is diminished.

We are a force for good. It is not just the supranational concept of Britishness, but it can be traced back to Queen Elizabeth I who, when dealing with the Catholics, said, “I will not make windows into men’s hearts.” That was her way of saying, “If you live in these islands, I expect from you certain behaviour in your public life, which includes compliance with the rule of law, but there is a part of you—your inner beliefs—which are yours.” I therefore make a plea that we do not often get a chance to make in this House: let us start looking at ourselves a little more carefully.

The rest of the world sees these islands as fragmenting, and sees a startling rise of nationalism. Whether that is the Scottish referendum, the call for English votes for English MPs or other causes, the world sees us not as pulling together but as fragmenting. Unless we start to be conscious of that and deal with the consequences, our negotiating positions will become much harder.

Above all, as a member of the Defence Committee in the previous Parliament, and after two Sessions on the Foreign Affairs Committee before that, I believe that unless we start to define what British national interests are and formulate a foreign policy accordingly, all the discussions about defence will be meaningless. There is a natural hierarchy—we do not know what forces we need unless we know what role we wish to play in the world. If we wish to play a positive role in the world, that will occasionally mean that we need significant military capabilities, because when war breaks out we have to fight that war before we can do the peace.