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My Lords, the thoughts of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, are always challenging.
Never has a country been in greater need of leadership which demonstrates vision with muscle and soul. The Government’s programme, as set forward in the gracious Speech, fails lamentably on both scores. I find it incredible that with all the anxiety, stress and homelessness in our society, the gracious Speech had not even a sentence to say about housing.
We have, however, to look at our role in the world. The Government say that they want us to go on being a leading nation. They tell us that they will strengthen the Diplomatic Service. That needs our support: it needs strengthening—urgently. It will be a huge task for all those in the Diplomatic Service to rebuild Britain’s reputation and rehabilitate the constructive role we used to play in world affairs. A speech whose very first sentence says that the Government’s primary aim has been to leave the European Union by
Next year—2020—will be the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. I was a young boy at the time, and I think back to all the vision and excitement that went into its creation in 1945: the meetings here in London, the celebrations and the commitment of the Government—a bi-partisan commitment, across the country, that it was an adventure that must not fail. We are a permanent member of the Security Council. Can any noble Lord suggest that if the Security Council were being created today there would be universal support for one of the seats going to the United Kingdom? We are not seen as a constructive, dynamic player on the world scene. We are not seen as a responsible player on the world scene. We are not seen as central to many of the problems that Governments are discussing.
I will focus for a moment or two on some specifics. First, I am glad that the Government have recognised the tremendous significance of artificial intelligence. I would like to hear a bit more from the Government—and to have seen more in the gracious Speech—about the UK’s role in the UK-based conference on this. It is not just a matter of recognising the issue: what do the Government want to achieve at the conference? Next month we also have the conference entitled “Time for Justice: Putting Survivors First”. What will the Government’s objective—their role and contribution—be in that conference? Similarly, what will our argument be at the UN climate change conference in Glasgow in 2020? We have done some very good things on climate change. We all know that there is further to go, but how are we proposing to gird the world up for the action necessary on an international scale?
The Prime Minister has indicated—and I am glad of that, even though at times it is implicit rather than explicit—his commitment to human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a young boy—I was 13 at the time—I was taken to Geneva by my father and had the privilege of meeting Eleanor Roosevelt. How that woman inspired me, as she did so many others. However, anyone who thinks that Eleanor Roosevelt, together with all the others involved, was making her contribution on human rights just as a nice way of organising society is misled. Certainly, it was going to be a better way of organising society to have the declaration as a basis of civilised behaviour, but she had a burning conviction, as did the others, with the experience of the Second World War, that human rights were fundamental to a secure and stable world community. If we are serious about the stable and secure world community to which we keep saying we are committed, what are we doing to strengthen the application of human rights within the world? As we have heard in this debate, there are the hugely important issues of Syria and Hong Kong. There are the ongoing, immense challenges for Palestine. There are also the thematic and wider issues of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and racial and religious prejudice in all its forms.
When we talk about the future of human rights, I wonder sometimes whether the time has not come to start examining the place of human social rights. For millions of people across the world, employment, health and education are every bit as important as the political rights. It is just possible that a cynic might ask, “What does this declaration of human rights add up to if it is not actually grappling with the immediate problems of humanity?”
I think that some of us recognise that we are a post-imperial nation and are not living in some sort of dream about being Churchill all over again. Incidentally, as a complete admirer of Churchill, I think that the misunderstanding of what he was all about is grotesque. Churchill was committed to the strengthening of Europe and the institutions that would be necessary for that. I was five at the time, but I can remember the excitement in my family when, at the beginning of the war, Churchill proposed that France and the United Kingdom should unite. Where has all that gone? Where has that dream gone? Where has that vision gone? Where is that sense of purpose in the world gone?
If we are to tackle these issues, multilateralism will be tremendously important. The international financial institutions have a great part to play in that. It is worrying that certain big issues are arising in the context of international financial institutions. We have a world which questions whether it should be dominated by the traditional powers, with the World Bank seen as a body whose chairmanship should always go to an American and the IMF seen as one whose chairmanship should always go to a European. Does this reflect the real the nature of the world community today?
I just want to finish on one other issue that has always concerned me and on which my thoughts about what is involved were very much strengthened as a Minister both in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, and indeed as Minister for Overseas Development. Arms control is an essential part of achieving stability in the world and of security. Can we hear a bit more about the Government’s priorities on arms control and biological and chemical warfare? My goodness, we have experience now in Britain of the dangers and hazards in the chemical sphere.
An essential element of negotiating the non-proliferation treaty was the undertaking by the existing nuclear powers that they would contribute seriously and committedly to the reduction of nuclear weapons. Work has been done in that direction but it is not being done very much at the moment, if at all, with President Trump in the driving seat. What are the Government doing about this? I put one last question to the Government in this context. The international community as a whole within the UN system has been doing a lot of work on a treaty for the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Our record on this is one of obstructionism and disdain, seeing it as a threat to the NPT. The reality of the world’s commitment is not going to go away, and surely the challenge to us in policy and diplomacy is to relate to the people who are so significant in this new treaty and to build positive relationships with them. There is no hope for the effective continuation of the operation of the NPT unless we have the good will and co-operation of the world as a whole.
If I have a dream, as an older man, it is that one day soon we will rejoin the world and spell out to the British people the excitement of belonging to and contributing to the world, and of effective governance in meeting all these challenges to which I have referred.