The real cost of ‘Global Britain’

Published by The i paper (30th January, 2017)

It is two decades since a newly-elected Labour government, riding a wave of heartfelt hope, proclaimed Britain would have an ethical foreign policy. Human rights would be ‘at the heart of our foreign policy,’ insisted Robin Cook, Tony Blair’s foreign secretary, saying policies henceforth ‘must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves.’

How hollow those words sound now, some strange echo from another era. Despite Cook’s best efforts that Labour government ended up embroiled in one of the most disastrous foreign misadventures in British history, the impact still felt so destructively across the Middle East. Its leader misled voters to back a blundering United States president, sucked up to bloodstained despots, unleashed our intelligence agencies to assist torture and even closed down a bribery case in our courts to appease Saudi Arabia.

Yet there is always tension in foreign affairs between ideals and reality. The balance for any government is to protect national interests without tarnishing the flag. But Cook was right: there does need to be an ethical dimension, even if other considerations may come first sometimes. And if democracy stands for anything then it should support people under repression seeking similar freedoms and offer sanctuary to those fleeing for lives. Britain should at least seek to be a beacon of hope.

Suddenly we find ourselves living in a world with nationalism on the rise, fuelled by fear and hatred. Autocrats are strengthening their grip from China to Russia, encouraging others to follow their lead. Populism is on the march – and not just in the West. Look at blood-splattered events in the Philippines, where a crass president encourages slaughter on the streets under the guise of a war on drugs. And Britain seems to be dumping any sense of ethical foreign policy. Already we pour rising torrents of aid into pockets of some of the planet’s most repellent regimes, which as former minister Grant Shapps pointed out in the Sunday Times encourages them to ignore rebukes on human rights.

Now our pragmatic prime minister, forced to find a new role for Britain by the result of a referendum, places the desperate search for trade deals first and foremost. So one minute she holds the hand of Donald Trump shortly before he picks up a pen to sign an order banning many Muslims from the United States, the next she flogs fighter jets to a Turkish leader flinging his foes in jail. This is the consequence of Brexit. It turns Britain into a supplicant nation, seeking trade agreements around the globe as it pulls away from the world’s biggest economy.

Theresa May’s tragedy is that she became prime minister at such a difficult time. Indeed, she did well walking the diplomatic tightrope of her flying visit to Trump’s side by shoring up Nato’s position, reiterating support for sanctions on Russia and disavowing the corrosive creed of liberal interventionism. But how tawdry that deal with Turkey is, given the brutal crackdown on President Erdogan’s opponents and free expression since the failed coup last summer. And how predictable that her speedy embrace of Trump would explode so quickly.

In wake of this misanthropic president’s bar on Muslims entering the United States, which so stains the world’s mightiest nation, we must ask a profound question: what is the price of our values? For behind glib talk of “Global Britain”, Britain’s weak stance stands exposed at a time when constant bile against migrants and refugees is leading to some sickening policies. The ban on Muslims is so ignorant, repulsive, sectarian and stupid I almost wonder if it was designed by the president’s chief strategist Steve Bannon in his self-avowed quest to destroy the state.

It is not just bigoted but based on another lie by his president. Trump claimed it was ‘almost impossible’ for Christians to enter the US – yet 399,677 have done so over the past 15 years compared with 279,339 Muslims. It will also backfire, since it is hard to think of a strategy better designed to help the jihadist cause beyond the US invasion of Iraq twelve years ago. This measure panders to crude prejudice while ignoring all facts about origins of terrorism from a man who has publicly regretted not stealing Iraq’s oil.

Yet May’s determination to placate Trump initially led her to reject condemnation of a discriminatory measure that bans one of her own backbenchers and a British Olympic hero from the US, along with millions more innocent people. Sadly, this is in keeping with her earlier blunt criticism of former vice-president John Kerry after his justified attack on Israeli building of settlements in occupied territories, clearly designed to help seduce the new Trump administration. And indeed, Britain’s sudden and alarming shift of tone on Iran and Syria.

Trump should not be welcomed for a state visit when banning Britons from his borders, even if the red carpet has been rolled out for some pretty revolting rulers in the past. But the prime minister’s hesitancy on something so obviously and utterly wrong symbolises a much deeper malaise as our nation struggles to find its new role in the world. For is Britain prepared to sell its values and prostrate before anyone – however malign, however murky, however revolting – in order to ensure the smoothest possible exit from Europe?

Forget human rights, discard ethics, ditch any dignity and just sign on the dotted line for a new trade deal. Is this really what was meant when they talked about taking back control?

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