I am honoured to have been invited to deliver the Brian Hodgson Memorial Lecture here in Charlbury. I am not sure that I ever had the honour of meeting Brian, but I have read of him being described as “as kindly a man as one could wish to meet”, a principled man and an Internationalist and supporter of the Oxfordshire United Nations Association Group amongst other things. He was obviously a very fine human being and I note that he called himself “vintage Labour”. I would like, with his permission, to adopt that label for myself.
The argument that I want to put to you this evening is that for too long, those of us who seek to work for a more just and peaceful world have, to some extent, misplaced our campaigning efforts. There have been mighty campaigns against British nuclear weapons, against the Iraq war, for peace in the Middle East and a just settlement for the Palestinians. There have been millions who have engaged in less strongly political campaigns in support of Oxfam, Christian Aid, Cafod, Unicef, Save the Children and all the many other development NGOs who work for a world without abject poverty. There are those who work hard to gain support for the values of the United Nations, as Malcolm Harper did for many years. But despite all this effort, when it comes to the crunch we are frequently disappointed. What I want to do this evening is ask ‘why’?
Many of us, who grew up in post Second World War Britain lived in a golden age of full employment, the new National Health Service and the Welfare State. We tend to think of that great 1945 ‘vintage’ Labour government as a major turning point in British history. I have always taken pride in its determination to support the independent of India and thus the beginning of the end of the British Empire. But it is worth remembering, that it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan who made the famous “wind of change” speech about the demand for independence blowing across Africa. And it was Conservative governments that negotiated the independence of most of Britain’s African colonies.
Thus many of us accepted that post Second World War Britain was much diminished in wealth and power, had given up notions of empire and domination of other people and had become a modern nation committed to the values of the United Nations, of international law and justice and equity. The disaster of the Suez adventure in 1956 and President Eisenhower’s action to slap the UK government down reinforces that view. But I am afraid that assumption is not correct. Britain remains to this day trapped in the famous Dean Acheson 1962 quip that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and not yet found a role”. My argument is that Britain still yearns to be a great power and to punch above its weight and in reality this means being best friends with the greatest power in the world and constantly striving to please the US rather than adopting a more constructive role in the world.
The 1945 Labour government did come to power determined that India should be free ( though let us admit that the way in which it was accomplished led to the terrible slaughter of millions that accompanied partition and the still unresolved conflict in Kashmir). But this did not mean that Britain gave up its image of itself as a great power. It was that same government that kept secret its determination to acquirethe atom bomb. Attlee had in fact been unaware of the bomb’s development by British and American scientists before he took office in July 1945. Barely two weeks later, nuclear explosions devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Afterwards, Attlee wrote “No government has ever been placed in such a position as ours today. The governments of the UK and the USA are responsible as never before for the future of the human race.” This is a completely honourable attitude. Attlee is deeply concerned at the threat to humanity posed by the atom bomb, but he still sees the UK alongside the US as responsible for the future of the human race. In November 1945, President Truman, the Prime Minister of Canada and Attlee issued their Declaration on the Atomic Bomb which set out the basic thinking that underlies the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The declaration said atomic power had the potential to do good or harm and that in order to ensure that it would be used only for constructive purposes, war must be prevented, atomic weapons eliminated and the fruits of scientific research for the peaceful use of atomic energy be made available to all nations. They also proposed that a UN Commission be set up and an inspection regime set in place. Thus we can see Attlee as the progressive, internationalist favouring Indian independence and atomic non-proliferation, but in a contradictory spirit keeping secret his commitment to develop a British bomb.
According to Professor David Reynolds, who made a documentary for the BBC on Attlee in 2005, Attlee’s view of the Empire was that “Britain needed to give up some of the trappings and burdens of formal empire and he really pushed ahead in giving independence to India. On the other hand, he believed Britain must still be a world power and he looked to different and cheaper ways to do that. This is the main reason why he went ahead, in great secrecy, with the development of Britain’s own atomic bomb.”
Similarly we tend to look back at Macmillan’s speech in Cape Town in 1960 to the South African parliament as an inevitable recognition of reality. He had spent a month visiting Africa and made a similar speech in Accra, in what was then the Gold Coast and is now Ghana, but it was remembered for what he said in Cape Town, partly because it was greeted with stony silence. His words are worth recalling:
The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not this growth of consciousness is a political fact.
He went on to say:
As a fellow member of the Commonwealth, it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect.
There was however an extended backlash to the speech from the right of the Conservative party which wished Britain to retain its imperial possessions. This led to the establishment of the Monday Club.
It is not my intention to rehearse all the highlights of British foreign policy over the last 60 years but it is worth recalling that . Harold Wilson did well to keep us out of Vietnam, despite constant American pressure, but tried to continue to please the US by supporting their policy which he had openly criticised in opposition. Our divisions over the European Union are an more complicated story, but are closely linked to Britain’s unhappiness at accepting its decline as a great power and the replacement of Europe rather than the United States at the centre of our affections. But my purpose in referring back to these landmarks in our post war history is to underline how difficult British governments have found it to give up their yearning for great power status. It is, in my view, telling that Douglas Hurd’s phrase that we “punch above our weight” is quoted with such favour, yet if any of us met a human being who constantly boasted that they punched above their weight we would be horrified and turn away!
It is, I would suggest, our failure to face up to the decline in our power as an individual nation that explains the increasingly shameful positions we have taken on the replacement of Trident, support for President Bush’s war in Iraq, the deployment of British troops in Helmand province in Afghanistan and our failure to stand up for international law in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. It is notable that on all these issues, with the honourable exception of the Liberal Democrats in the Iraq war, but not its aftermath, the three main political parties are in complete agreement.
And yet, most thinking people know that each of these policies is deeply flawed.
On Trident’s replacement, we know we have a nuclear weapon pointed at no one, with no one pointing at us, yet we proclaim that we must retain nuclear weaponry because the future is uncertain. On that basis, every nation needs a nuclear weapon. And yet everybody understands that if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, we would see proliferation across the Middle East and a growing likelihood of use of such weapons. Yet Iran most certainly has the nuclear weapons of Israel and the US pointed at it. The real answer is to stick to the old policy of eliminating all WMD from the Middle East, but since there is no willingness to challenge Israel’s nuclear status, this becomes a diminishing reality. And Britain’s position in demanding the right to replace its nuclear weapon undermines our credibility and helps to further undermine the non-proliferation treaty.
On the tragedy of the Iraq war, there was a place for a bit of greatness on Britain’s part. It is now clear from all the books coming out of the US that the Bush administration always assumed that the UK would be with them. It is also clear how desperate the US was to be been to be in a coalition. It boasted of a coalition of 35 and went around the poorest countries in the world such as Rwanda and Eritrea to bully them into signing up, thought they did not request a single soldier. The American people were lied to in a different way than the British people and thus 80 per cent of them believed that the attack on the Twin Towers came out of Iraq. Not surprisingly, they were therefore willing to contemplate war, but 80 per cent said repeatedly, in coalition, yes, alone no. Britain’s role was to be that coalition. It is true that Australia also supported the US but alone that would not have been enough to look like a serious coalition.
If only Tony Blair had had the confidence to see the UK as an independent country with an independent mind, he would have made UK support conditional on a second UN resolution. And when it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, instead of smearing Hans Blix and rushing to war before his evidence became ever clearer, we could have accepted that sanctions should be lifted and Saddam Hussein indicted for crimes against humanity. And just as in Serbia with Milosevic, the people of Iraq could have sent him for trial in The Hague. This policy would not have suited the neo-conservatives who wanted to dominate Iraqi oil and its location on the gulf and thought Saddam Hussein’s unpopularity would make their invasion popular. But it would have left Iraq and the world in a better place. And Britain would have retained its honour and reputation. Why did this not happen? Because Tony Blair preferred to lie to his Cabinet, parliament and country than risk the American alliance. And yet, he paradox is, as the recent Presidential elections have concluded, that a UK stand could have saved the US from a disastrous foreign policy mistake.
On Afghanistan, I remain of the view that the decision to topple the Taliban regime was reasonable since they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial and he both claimed to have organised the attack on the twin towers and was training more recruits for similar attacks. But the US decision to stay outside the Nato deployment and desire to bomb and attack wherever they thought right in order to find Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omah, led to constant bombing in places like Helmand. With virtually no debate, Tony Blair agreed to take over responsibility for Helmand from the US in 2006. John Reid, the then Defence Secretary, famously talked about the possibility of the troops returning without a shot being fired. But it was by then clear that the whole strategy in Afghanistan was going wrong. Instead of the UK uniting with others to review the position, Britain abjectly took over the most difficult region of the country and consequently sacrificed the lives of many of our troops.
On the question of the Israel/Palestine conflict, successive British governments used to stand firm on international law. But we have now had the International Court of Justice declare in a powerful ruling that the Israeli wall is illegal, the settlements and closures are illegal and yet the US, UK and EU continue to do nothing about it. The prospects of a two state solution are evaporating as Israel incorporates more and more of the Occupied Territories and systematically confines the Palestinians to a series of impoverished Bantustans. As the former Prime Minister of Israel has said, this will mean a second world wide campaign against a cruel apartheid-like state. And yet the UK, with its historical responsibility for the situation in Palestine, does not have the courage to stand up for the principles of international law. This is even more bewildering when there is a ready instrument to hand with the EU-Israeli trade treaty giving Israel privileged access to the European market on condition that it respects human rights and the principles of international law. The tragedy of this is the continuing and increasingly grim suffering of the Palestinians, continuing violence and division and bitterness across the Arab and Moslem world. The unspoken tragedy is that the moral authority of the UN and of international law is being undermined. And Britain looks increasingly foolish as our clever young Foreign Secretary makes the neo-conservative case more articulately than do the neo-cons and tries to posture on the world stage when everyone knows that the UK is no more than a US stooge.
The case I am trying to make tonight is exemplified by the consequences of the establishment of my old department, the Department for International Development in 1997 as an equal department represented in the Cabinet rather than being a part of the Foreign Office. This meant that DfID ceased to merely distribute the UK’s rather small aid budget, but also advocated policies on trade, arms sales, conflict, the UN, World Bank and IMF which were informed by a commitment to development and greater global equity. Up until 2003, this perspective was shifting UK thinking and the positions we occupied on the global stage. Since the declaration of the war on terror, DfID has become an afterthought rather than a central influence in consideration of UK foreign policy.
My conclusion then is that Britain has still not found its role after losing its empire. It is now trapped in a vainglorious desperation to be and be seen to be a great power in a backward looking way and yet we are living through a period of enormous global change. With the rise of the economic power of Asia and Brazil and the relative decline of the United States, the UK should be rethinking its role in order to contribute to the resolution of the problems we now face.
We are also living at a time when the world faces great risks. The most fundamental of all is climate change. To rise to this challenge, we need unprecedented international co-operation. President-elect Obama has made a clear commitment to a major change in US policy on this question. But a foreign policy that generates growing bitterness, division and inequity makes the likelihood of the necessary international co-operation a difficult prospect.
The challenge of peace in the Middle East is enormous and the US, even under the new President, is locked into a deep commitment to unconditional support of Israel. With German guilt and UK unconditional support for US policy, the prospect of the EU taking an independent stand is very small and the likelihood of growing bloodshed worryingly high. If, for example, the UK had lined up with a coalition of free thinking states, such as for example Sweden, Spain, Brazil and South Africa after Hamas won the elections in 2006, we could have recognised the outcome of the election, encouraged Palestinian unity, and kept open an alternative approach to resolving the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
The problems of poverty, weak states and growing world population are also enormous. By 2050, there will be 9 billion people in the world and 90% of the new people will be born in the poorest countries. This, together with climate change and other environmental strains, risks a desperate growth of poverty and suffering, spreading state collapse, and the displacement of millions of people. To face this future we need a firm commitment to a more equitable and just world order. The UK with all the experience of its history, global relationships and diverse people should be working with other countries to challenge the destructive ideas of the recent past and build support for a better way forward committed to multilaterialism, an enhanced UN, greater equity and unequivocal support for international law. Instead, we constantly humiliate ourselves by questing after the role of a great power and ending up in the role of nodding poodle.
Photo credit: Herry Lawford.