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17 April 2024

David Lammy’s foreign policy for a diminished Britain

The shadow foreign secretary recognises that the world has changed fundamentally since Labour last won power.

By Freddie Hayward

If David Lammy becomes foreign secretary after this year’s election, he will face tricky diplomatic terrain.

Britain’s foreign relationships have been tattered by a tortuous exit from the EU. The Global South is angry about the unfair Covid vaccine rollout and Britain’s support for Israel. A Donald Trump presidency would inject uncertainty into America’s security guarantee for Europe. Yet the biggest change, as Lammy all but admits in a 4,035-word essay for Foreign Affairs, is Britain’s relative decline. He writes:

“When former prime minister Tony Blair entered Downing Street 27 years ago, the British economy was larger than India’s and China’s combined. The United Kingdom still administered a major Asian city, Hong Kong, as a colony… Today, the global order is messy and multipolar. China has become a superpower, with an economy more than five times as large as the United Kingdom’s. But there has also been a shift in power to a wider variety of states since I was first a minister almost 19 years ago.”

He recognises that the UK “cannot end this terrible conflict” in Gaza. He notes that in the UN General Assembly, countries representing two thirds of the global population have either abstained or voted against motions to condemn Vladimir Putin. The West, in other words, is tumbling down the pecking order and Britain is falling with it.

Lammy calls his strategy to steer a diminished Britain through these geopolitical straits “progressive realism”: using realist means to achieve progressive ends. The thinking, Lammy writes, combines Ernest Bevin’s gritty, practical approach, which saw the creation of Nato and Britain’s nuclear deterrent, with Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy, which prioritised human rights, climate change and international aid.

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Key to the plan is restoring the UK’s international standing. Labour insiders concede that Rishi Sunak has done much to normalise relations through, for instance, agreeing the Windsor framework with the EU. But they also think that Britain must be much closer to Brussels, both through economic deals and security. Labour has been saying for a while that it would seek a security pact with the EU, as well as attend meetings of its foreign affairs council as part of a structured dialogue. “European security will be the Labour Party’s foreign policy priority,” Lammy writes.

What is more interesting is that he sees bringing the Global South onside as essential to progressive realism. Lammy believes they have reason to shun the West. He writes:

“Over the last decade, [the Conservatives] have undermined the United Kingdom’s standing as a development superpower with a mismanaged merger of government departments that devalued expertise and forced cuts to crucial programs. And instead of fighting for the hearts and minds of the new global middle class, they addressed this group in often offensive tones, such as when then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson publicly recited a colonialist poem by Rudyard Kipling during a 2017 visit to Myanmar. And the government compromised one of the United Kingdom’s greatest strengths – its soft power – by attacking institutions such as universities, courts, and the BBC.”

Much of Lammy’s programme will comprise restoring legitimacy to British diplomacy. He wants to boost the UK’s soft power, pivot towards Europe and build a foreign policy for a more dangerous world. His plan recognises that the world, and Britain’s place in it, has fundamentally shifted since Labour last won power from the Tories. Progressive realism could, therefore, be summarised as pursuing progressive ends through a realistic appraisal of Britain’s diminished power.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Can a Labour government avoid early unpopularity?]

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