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 8:24 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 8:24 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, when I came to this country in the early 1980s as a 19 year-old student from India, Britain was known as the sick man of Europe. It had no respect in the world. A country which had a great empire was going nowhere. In a recent article, James Landale wrote:

William Gladstone, said that his first principle of foreign policy was ‘good government at home’ ... countries with a strong sense of national identity, a healthy economy and a stable political leadership with a clear agenda tend to have good foreign policies … I am not sure Britain quite lives up to that ideal”.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and his committee on this outstanding report, UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order. It is the sort of committee and the sort of report that makes the world look at the House of Lords and respect it. It says right up front that,

“a harsher and more inward-looking America, a shrinking political centre-ground in much of Europe, a more aggressive Russia … the collapse of some regimes in the Middle East … and China”,

wanting its time in the sun are a challenge. Then the report goes straight into global Britain. This is the whole challenge. Sir Simon Fraser, the former head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that,

“he could not ‘think of any time in my career when there has been less clarity, frankly, about the purposes and objectives of British foreign policy’”.

My noble friend Lord Ricketts, who spoke earlier, was,

“‘disappointed at the lack of an energetic, active, distinctive British foreign policy in the last couple of years’. He thought Brexit was ‘distracting enormously from that’. Dr Haass said that ‘among the foreign policy elites—or the foreign policy establishment … the British role is seen as having been downsized and likely to continue that way, and that Brexit reinforces that’”.

In a speech in October, the Foreign Secretary spoke about his vision of the invisible chain. He openly said that,

“while the UK ‘may not be a superpower’, it was ‘probably the best-connected of the major powers in the world’. Through ‘our links with the Commonwealth, the transatlantic alliance, our European friends, and’”,

one could go on, and then he talked about shared values.

Given our size and nuclear power relationship, there is a country that the report talks about, which is India. It is the largest country in the Commonwealth and a growing economic powerhouse, and we should take it far more seriously. We have just had the largest democratic event in the history of the world: there were 900 million voters in the Indian election. The results will be declared on 23 May. Are we taking India, an emerging global power regionally that has the whole world looking it, as seriously as we should? The report states:

“The FCO said the UK’s relationship with India was ‘central to our aspirations’”,

and Mr Roy-Chaudhury pointed out,

“other countries are assiduously seeking to engage with India and they appear to offer more than the UK … is able to commit to”.

As the founding chairman of the UK India Business Council, I have seen this first-hand in the way we have treated India. I accompanied Prime Minister Blair, Prime Minister Brown and Prime Minister Cameron—twice—to India and I was there when Prime Minister Theresa May was there in 2016. She asked India to take back Indians who had overstayed in Britain. That is no way to build a relationship. She did not even meet the universities delegation when we were there. Britain increased the minimum salary for IT workers from India, a great services export, by 50% the week before she left. Just before that, Britain reduced the cost of a two-year multiple entry visa for business and tourist visitors from China from £350 to £85, and in India to this day it is four times the price. The report says very clearly that international students must be removed from the net migration figures. Does the Minister agree? The number one reason why international students do not choose the UK as their number one choice is the lack of postgraduate work opportunities. We are beaten by Canada, Australia and America. We need to bring back the two-year postgraduate work visa.

This year is the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar by Brigadier-General Dyer, for which Britain has never apologised. The Prime Minister had the opportunity, including on the anniversary itself, to apologise, and she did not. Why can the British Government not apologise for this monstrous act, as Churchill put it? It was nothing short of murder, as my mother put it, of innocent men, women and children, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims alike.

The report talks about the Commonwealth. Sir Ciarán Devane, head of the British Council, said that the Commonwealth “gives us something extra”. India now has a major role to play in powering the Commonwealth ahead. I know the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is a great champion of the Commonwealth.

Many witnesses talked about Europe. The report is not focused on Europe, but it states:

“‘Britain’s first circle of interest and influence, even outside the EU, will be via Europe … continental Europe [is] our first line of defence and interest’”.

Sir Simon Fraser said that,

“our policy naturally aligns with that of other European countries”.

Then we come to defence. The report talks a lot about soft power but also about hard power. Soft power is useless without hard power. We have just celebrated the 70th anniversary of NATO, to which our country is the second highest contributor after America. However, our defence spending is 2% of GDP, whereas America spends 3.5%. I think we should spend over 3% of GDP on our defence, as that would make our position even stronger.

The report also talks about how badly the Foreign Office is resourced, with an expenditure of only £1.95 billion. The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, said that the FCO’s budget was “far too low”, and Sir Simon Fraser described it as having been “hollowed out”. Regarding the influence that we have as a country, we are a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the G7, the G8, the Commonwealth, the G20, NATO and the EU. We have phenomenal influence and yet we have had setbacks, with, as the report points out,

“the loss of a British judge on the International Court of Justice for the first time in the Court’s history”.

The decision to leave the European Union will contribute to how we are perceived.

One soft power element is our universities. As a proud university chancellor, I have said that they are one of our strongest assets. The British Council has highlighted 55 world leaders who have studied at UK universities, and the Chevening scholarship scheme is absolutely phenomenal in boosting our soft power. Professor James Mayall, who, like me, is a fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, has co-authored a book entitled Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests. In it he says:

“For several generations, governments have claimed that their foreign policy is based on a value system, and that they behave ethically in their dealings with foreign countries”.

I think that we do behave ethically in our dealings with foreign countries.

The FCO has three strategic objectives: first, to protect our people; secondly, to project our global influence; and, thirdly, to promote our prosperity. Yet, what is Britain if we leave the European Union? The Brexiteers talk about “global Britain”. I believe that we will have a loss in influence. One of the key tests that was not sufficiently covered by the report is security. Will we be able to reach agreement with the EU’s security agents, such as Europol? Will we have access to the Schengen Information System database and will we be able to benefit from the Prüm arrangements? We used one database over 500 million times in one year? Will we be able to shape Europe’s foreign policy, as we have been able to do, and will any trust be left between us and Europe if we leave the European Union? We are already losing our important positions in the world. There is no question but that we will be greatly diminished.

I conclude by congratulating the noble Lord once again on his outstanding report. This little country, with 1% of the world’s population, powers ahead. In spite of these three wretched years following the referendum, we are doing very well. Just imagine: if we can remain in the European Union, we will be able to greatly enhance our foreign policy in a shifting world order.