Sun, 19 Sep 2010
"At a time when the world is reaching to embrace a new liberal agenda – of democratic renewal, environmental responsibility, poverty alleviation and increased prosperity – we Liberal Democrats are back where we belong, in government shaping our shared destiny."
Speaking at the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference today, Liberal Democrat Foreign Office Minister, Jeremy Browne said:
Check against delivery
I stand before you as the first Liberal Democrat Minister to serve in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office…ever.
The last of our party’s predecessors to preside over Britain’s foreign interests was the Marquess of Reading. Unfortunately, he only lasted two months as Foreign Secretary in 1931, so I am now officially the longest serving liberal Foreign Minister since Cecil Harmsworth took office in 1919!
Back in Harmsworth’s time, there was no Commonwealth. Britain still maintained an empire, run directly from London, which stretched around the world. Our reach was so vast, it was said, that the sun could never set on the British Empire. Times have certainly changed – dramatically – since then, although the management of power on a global scale remains central to our foreign policy.
Ironically, given that Britain’s empire is now a distant memory, the office in which I now reside was previously occupied, until 1947, by the Secretary of State for India.
When I entered it for the first time, just a few months ago in May, I was immediately struck by its grandest architectural feature; two massive, wood-carved, curved, identical doors.
‘What are those?’ I asked.
‘Ah…Minister,’ said the civil servant, ‘those are the maharajah doors. They were designed so if two maharajahs of significant status were to visit the office at the same time, there would be no protocol problems with one having to enter ahead of the other. Instead, both doors would be flung open and they would be received side-by-side.’
See, these civil servants, they think of everything!
I regret to say that, in my brief time as a Minister, I have yet to receive a single maharajah, let alone two simultaneously.
Mind you, there are probably some maharajahs who, a year ago, would have given pretty long odds on their prospects of meeting a Liberal Democrat Minister, so you never know!
Actually, my two grand office doors have a new use – you can never be quite sure when Nick Clegg and David Cameron may want to visit at the same time!
On my first day at the Foreign Office I also went to see the Permanent Under-Secretary, the most senior civil servant.
‘Welcome to the department,’ he said. ‘I have one particular request. That you put to one side any dated preconceptions or stereotypes you may have about the Foreign Office.’
‘I’m very happy to do that,’ I said to him, ‘but I also have a particular request of you.’
‘Go on…’ he said.
‘That you put to one side any outdated preconceptions or stereotypes you may have about the Liberal Democrats.'
New Liberal Influence
Because the truth is, we have entered a new era in our politics and a new era for our party.
Just think of the global changes and events that have happened during our long wilderness years in seemingly endless opposition.
The Cold War, the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, Britain’s entry into the European Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the Gulf War, 9/11, Afghanistan, the Iraq War.
During those decades, the Liberal Democrats were so often a voice of wisdom and sound judgement, vindicated by subsequent events.
But we were also always a voice in opposition: marginalised, patronised, ignored.
You only need to look back a few years to the Iraq War to see what a tragedy that was, not principally for our party, but for our country.
We warned again and again and again that Labour Ministers were making spurious claims about links to Al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction, but what could we ultimately do? Nothing.
Remember that, when unholy alliances of commentators and opposition politicians claim that the Liberal Democrats, in power, face difficulties today. The real difficulty for us was being powerless in opposition to prevent their misjudgements from becoming reality.
Now, working with our allies at home and abroad, the Liberal Democrats, with Ministerial representation in the Foreign Office, in the Ministry of Defence, across the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and with our Leader as Deputy Prime Minister - for the first time in the modern era, we have the opportunity to influence and shape the great foreign policy challenges facing Britain and the world.
And the biggest duty of every government is the security of its citizens.
Globalisation has brought us closer to each other. The interests of nation states are more intimately intertwined than at any point in history. Here today, we see the fruits of that closeness, as our proudly internationalist party welcomes ambassadors and international delegates who have joined us at our conference in Liverpool. We have friends across the globe.
But along with the beneficial and benign effects of globalisation comes a new amorphous threat – one whose evolution has mirrored the economic, cultural and technological developments of recent decades; one whose tentacles spread across national boundaries; and one whose existence abroad increases the risk of attack at home.
So securing ourselves against the threat from globalised terrorism is the first of the two great challenges confronting Britain today.
With their rising prosperity, many countries with large Muslim populations should be confident of their national and religious identity. And Britain should always stand as a beacon of friendship and tolerance. Muslims should not fear persecution or threat from western nations seeking mutual cooperation, respect, understanding and security.
That is my emphatic belief, but it needs to be tempered by another truth: that there are extremist distortions of Islam that are a direct challenge to our values and our way of life.
Our response needs to be multi-dimensional.
It has a military dimension, most clearly in Afghanistan, where our forces include 40 Commando Royal Marines from my own constituency. They will be returning home to Taunton this autumn without 14 of their men, who have fought and died in an inspiring and heroic quest to bring greater security and stability to the people of Helmand province.
The war has been arduous and it is not over.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that our troops will not be in combat roles after 2015. Of course, the sooner the Afghan people can ensure their own security, the better.
But I say to those who urge a hasty retreat that there are consequences from leaving as well as consequences from staying.
If we create a military and political vacuum in Afghanistan, there is a strong prospect that it will be filled by people innately hostile to our values, with ambitions to export that hostility around the world.
That is why our government - with Liberal Democrat Minister for the Armed Services, Nick Harvey, at its heart - is giving our troops both the political support and the equipment that they need to succeed
As well as military operations, our response to the security threat has many other dimensions: humanitarian, diplomatic, political, and cultural. Britain’s embassy in Afghanistan is the biggest in the world. Our government works tirelessly with charities, international organisations and others to bring greater peace and prosperity across every continent.
At home and abroad, our liberalism should be generous and optimistic, but we must remain vigilant in its defence.
And we face other challenges to our security: the interminable inability to find political and institutional resolution in the Middle East; Iran’s combination of an aggressive foreign policy agenda and the pursuit of a nuclear weapon; the grotesque regime in North Korea; the violations of human rights which Nick Clegg will be addressing at the United Nations this week; the disruption and displacement caused by climate change; and the international criminal trade in drugs, money, people and weapons.
Anyone who believed that the end of the Cold War in 1989 would herald a future of international security has some reason to be disappointed, but I believe we still have much more cause to be optimistic than to be fearful.
Recasting the World Order
Because alongside our security responsibilities are a potentially even greater second foreign policy challenge: the recasting of the entire world order.
During my life, certainly from the British perspective, international affairs have revolved around Europe and North America.
First the Cold War, when North America and western Europe was ranged against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Then, after the Iron Curtain was pulled back, the United States as the sole superpower, counter-balanced, to a degree, by an expanding and institutionally ambitious European Union.
Now, in a rapid space of time, we are shifting from that G8 world to a new G20 world.
Think of those G8 summits which dominated global decision-making, with the photo-call of leaders. Joined by the President of the European Commission, all nine of them would stand in a row, and only one did not represent North America or Europe – the Japanese Prime Minister – there on merit, but seemingly also a representative of the entire rest of the world.
Not any longer. Last month, China became the second biggest economy in the world. And it is not just China – India is on the rise, and Brazil, and a wave of smaller but significant G20 nations like Mexico, Turkey, and South Korea.
Big populations, big growth rates: the consequence is that Europe’s share of world prosperity is set to shrink by more than half over the next generation.
The question is not whether to try and stop this process – it is happening – but whether we can help make it a force for good.
I believe we can, not by resisting change, but by embracing it and leading it.
So our global institutional architecture needs to be renewed.
The permanent membership of the UN Security Council, cast after the last world war, should expand to include Japan, Germany, India and Brazil, plus African representation, with a parallel examination of how to expand this group without paralysing progress. Britain needs to maintain a long-term vision. If we do not, the emerging economies will – rightly – see us as a barrier to progression, and not as the catalyst that we should be.
We should, in harness with other European powers, lead the fight against climate change, using both politics and technology.
But we must, at the same time, also recognise the legitimate aspiration of every person on our planet to improve their standard of living. Our task is not to prevent progress, but to make it sustainable.
We should realise, in a world of more evenly distributed wealth, that our ability to wield influence through economic means, including sanctions, will diminish as the west loses the monopoly of supply.
That will mean seeking to wield greater influence but issuing fewer orders.
With less than 1% of the world’s population we have a keen interest in forging a rules-based and consensual global order.
Most importantly, we must resist any temptation that exists for Britain to simply pull up the drawbridge. That would be a catastrophic mistake.
Many more hundreds of millions of people have been liberated from extreme poverty by globalisation than by any western aid programme, and Britain’s economy and businesses have benefited too. Especially now, in these uncertain economic times, we must be a loud and consistent voice for free trade, competition and open markets.
But amid this dizzying level of change, do not underestimate Britain.
Nobody else does, because we retain huge advantages, directly relevant to our new times.
English is the language of international business, entertainment and the internet. We remain the sixth biggest economy in the world. We are leaders in the UN, the EU, NATO and the Commonwealth. Our media – the BBC, the Economist, and the Financial Times – provide intellectual leadership in current affairs. We have superbly flexible and skilled armed forces. Of the top 10 universities in the world, six are American, four are British – no other country is represented. We are admired for our creativity, our innovation and our ingenuity. And although they may be unfashionable at home, our democratic and governmental institutions are respected around the world.
And I can tell you that the picture, beamed to every corner of the earth, of our new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, coming together in the national interest, said more than a million words about Britain’s renewed optimism, resolution and relevance.
At a time when the world is reaching to embrace a new liberal agenda – of democratic renewal, environmental responsibility, poverty alleviation and increased prosperity – we Liberal Democrats are back where we belong, in government shaping our shared destiny.
We should be so proud of what we have achieved and so excited about what is yet to come.