UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order (International Relations Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:24 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Crossbench 6:24 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, last month, I learned what was for me a new concept when for the first time scientists managed to photograph the rim of a black hole. The astrophysicists called it an “event horizon”—an interesting term.

Thinking about today’s hugely timely debate, it occurred to me that that is exactly what the UK is living through in terms of its foreign policy and its place in the world. However, the metaphor is not exact because I gather that what lies inside the black hole is quite unknowable. By contrast, and partly thanks to this fine report from your Lordships’ International Relations Committee, we have a good idea of what might lie beyond the rim of Brexit if only we can reach and cross this accursed event horizon in reasonable order.

In his memoir Memory Hold-the-Door, John Buchan, statesman and incomparable spy novelist, wrote that:

“in the cycle to which we belong we can see only a fraction of the curve”.

It is a line I know the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, also likes to quote. The curve described in his committee’s report is jagged and alarming in so many ways.

In big-picture terms, what shines through for me is that the great prize in future could be, would be and should be to draw China more and more into the international rules-based system, not least its humanitarian elements. It is also plain that the same prize is probably beyond the West’s reach in terms of doing the same for Russia. The thrill of being a disruptor state with a talent for a wide spectrum of hybrid aggression appears to have an addictive quality for the current management in Moscow, as they continue to assuage the hurt of losing the first Cold War. As for the West itself, the International Relations Committee rightly and strongly stresses that:

The UK should continue to resist US challenges to the multilateral system, and seek to strengthen key institutions particularly the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the Bretton Woods institutions and the World Trade Organisation”.

The other tocsin which rings out from this report is the rapidity of technological advances that can swiftly overturn familiar nostrums of statecraft and place ever more the means of asymmetric conflict into ever smaller numbers of hands—sometimes even a single pair of hands. These kinds of developments will not slow down and wait for us to catch up with them once Brexit has at last ceased to siphon off the bulk of our energies. What we need to do is make a virtue of the uncertainty that the Brexit event horizon is bringing us and build on this excellent report by persuading Whitehall to take a fundamental look at our place in the world and the resources we deploy on its sustenance.

A few weeks ago, I fell into conversation about Brexit with a very old friend in the other place, Frank Field MP. “Everybody keeps saying this is the worst event since Suez,” Frank said. “We need to see how parts of the British constitution did or did not work.” It was an intriguing thought about a stretching task, which is not one susceptible to an investigatory instrument such as Franks on the Falklands or Chilcot on Iraq. That is probably a theme for another day, but Frank Field’s idea stimulated me to take a look at the scattering of post-Suez views that Whitehall undertook. They were all secret, by the way, and there was no Select Committee inquiry into Suez.

I counted a quartet of quite substantial internal reviews: a politico-military one for the chiefs of staff in 1957; the first-ever cost-benefit analysis of the British Empire in 1957, which I have always thought was rather late; a Cabinet Secretary-led inquiry in 1957-58 on The Position of the United Kingdom in World Affairs; and finally a Prime Minister-commissioned Future Policy Study undertaken for Harold Macmillan in 1959-60 on where the UK would be by 1970 on unchanged current domestic, economic and foreign policies. That report in particular spared its readers in Whitehall nothing about the starkness of the economic prospects, not least in comparison to the six founding member countries of the European Economic Community.

The report before us today is offered as,

“part of a constructive debate”.

It should be more than that, triggering a review—in public this time of course—as broad-ranging in scope as those post-1956 inquiries. Perhaps Parliament should direct the process using a Joint Committee of both Houses. A royal commission, as suggested yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, might be a good idea; once an instrument of high utility, but now out of fashion, perhaps one could be created specially for the purpose. Or possibly the next Prime Minister could authorise a review as Macmillan did with his sequence of inquiries as he scrambled into the premiership across the rubble left by the Suez affair and the resignation of Sir Anthony Eden.

In my judgment, it is a first-order question that rises above and reaches beyond the usual range covered by the five-year cycle of strategic defence and security reviews. It needs to be a truly national conversation that starts with the fundamental question of whether we should still strive to be a considerable player in the influence markets of the world. There may be those suffering from post-Brexit exhaustion, as we all are to some degree, even though we are not there yet, who think that a period of reticence on our part would be fitting. It has been distressing to discover that we seem to have lost the second part of our genius for muddling through. At “muddling” we have been excelling ourselves; it is the “through” but that appears to be beyond us.

I profoundly hope that nerves will not be lost, which would leave us in a condition of resentful torpor. A wide-ranging inquiry could be a partial antidote that, especially if it makes a convincing and realistic case for our remaining a substantial player in the world with verve and conviction. As that great economic planner and institution builder Jean Monnet, who knew us Brits very well, put it when we were experiencing another bad patch in the 1970s, the British have not “stepped aside from history”. Monnet was right. We have not, we should not and we will not.