I made the following contribution to a debate on Global Britain that had been tabled by Tom Tugendhat MP, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Paul Masterton and to hear his positive case for a global Britain. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat for speaking with such passion about this extremely timely subject.
In Brexit, we are managing the most momentous political change of my lifetime. This period of renewal is taking place in an era when the effectiveness of international governance structures is being questioned, the power dynamics across the world are shifting fundamentally, and technology is altering the possibilities available to citizens of every country. Faith is withering in established international rules and institutions, many of which were drawn up in the aftermath of the second world war to lock in peace, as they struggle to reflect new realities such as mass migration and the movement of global capital. That is raising real questions about what it means to be a citizen, to whom Governments should extend assistance, to whom global companies should be accountable, and the very nature of the bonds and values that glue societies together. Meanwhile, as China and other nations grow in economic power, our certainty that international norms necessarily reflect universal values is being challenged.
Those trends are unnerving, but they also present an opportunity to a global Britain that is ambitious to carve a new place in the world: a place that proudly reflects who we are now, rather than what we might have been in some nostalgia-tinted past; a place that sees us regain confidence in the values we bring as a nation that upholds the rule of the law and individual freedom; and a place that encourages technological and scientific advance.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the values we hold as global Britain are also held by our European allies and neighbours?
Yes. I do not want this to descend into a Brexit debate. I was a floating voter during the referendum. I very much hope that having voted to leave the European Union, we are not seen as having an isolationist instinct, because my hon. Friend is right—we share a great number of values, and those relationships will be extremely important as we go forward in an increasingly uncertain world.
As well as being European values, does my hon. Friend not agree that they are global values?
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. The point I was making is that although we might assume that these are universal global values, we have seen in recent years that we cannot assume their universality. That is why we, as a nation, need to stand for something in the world. There is a debate to be had about those values, and it is important that the UK has a strong independent voice in that debate.
The challenge for us as politicians is to give those whom we represent both a sense of security and priority and a clear understanding that our engagement with the rest of the world has practical relevance to their lives. To echo what others have said today, though, if we do not act in the world, we will be acted upon. With that challenge in mind, I want briefly to share some thoughts on how we might begin this new journey.
First, I echo the view that my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling has expressed on a number of occasions: we want to see a much more prominent role given to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as we leave the EU. If we are to make the most of this period of momentous change, we require intense, sustained relationship building at all levels, and a strong narrative about our direction of travel.
The Department for International Development became an independent Department in 1997, as a key component of new Labour’s self-proclaimed ethical foreign policy. Overseas aid moneys previously distributed from the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office budgets were centralised, leaving less financial autonomy for both those major Departments of State.
With the aid budget now ring-fenced by law, in recent years we have seen DFID rushing to spend its budget before year-end on projects that have undermined the otherwise strong case for its broader work on disease prevention, disaster relief and security. Meanwhile, the FCO has struggled to sustain its existing network of operations, so while the FCO may have the grand trappings and the historical clout, it can at times feel rather hollow when it is DFID that has the cash. Brexit should provide us with the perfect opportunity to refocus our outward-facing Departments and infuse our international work with strategic intent.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. Many of us would like to see greater co-ordination. While we recognise the skillsets that are particular to DFID, that does not take away from the co-ordination that could be so well done if experts such as the DFID permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, were able to work better with partners across Whitehall.
Certainly. The problem with the debate on aid is that it is so often perceived as a DFID-bashing exercise, and that is not what I intend my comments to be. They are a statement that, actually, the Foreign Office needs to take a strong leadership role so that DFID money is not frittered away on projects that have no strategic value to what we are trying to achieve in the world.
I am sorry to intervene again, but there is an important point here. We all complain about DFID, but the fact is that, as far as aid agencies go, DFID spends its money about as well as it can. There is a stronger argument to suggest that the £2 billion of public money spent by other Departments—including, sadly, the FCO and the Home Office—is potentially not as well spent. That is a separate argument about the overall balance in overseas spending.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I welcome the cross-departmental work that FCOand DFID Ministers are already doing in trying to move us towards that approach, although I would like that work to develop through the further integration of aid with our military, diplomatic and trade commitments, and I would like the FCO to be given the premier leadership role in that regard.
In withdrawing from the political, legal and diplomatic structures of the EU, we will, by definition, need to construct an entirely new approach to our global relationships. I would be keen to hear from the Minister what work is being done to set out a framework for engagement with European allies in future.
Party-to-party engagement can be vital in building political relationships that later bear fruit—something in which appointed civil servants inevitably face a level of restriction. Each major party already engages with counterparts in its European Parliament political grouping, and we have the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and bodies such as the International Democrat Union for broader international party engagement, but going forward, we will need to think much more carefully about how we use these bodies to our advantage.
Our German counterparts, particularly in the CDU, have been very wise in using the Stiftung model to advance their nation’s political and economic interests. Is there a post-Brexit case for a strong equivalent body here to ensure that key political relationships are kept warm whether a party is in government or in opposition? Too often, those relationships die when a particular politician moves on, and we need some kind of sustained involvement in those relationships.
In the face of rising popular discontent, the challenge for all nations will be how to reshape global institutions to reflect new realities and refresh their legitimacy in the eyes of the people we are elected to serve. The UK has a unique opportunity to be ahead of the curve on this and to help move the world towards global standards in trade and technology that would benefit British businesses and safeguard the interests of our citizens in the face of rapid, unpredictable technological advances. That will be much easier to do if we are able to define our future relationship with the EU in a way that leaves room for a truly independent trade policy.
That is not to suggest that free trade agreements are a panacea, and we should certainly avoid entering into substandard deals out of political imperative. However, free trade agreements can act as catalysts through which broader diplomatic and trade objectives can be fulfilled, making them particularly relevant to our global Britain ambition. Indeed, other nations have been aggressively using their own trade policies to advance broader economic and security interests.
The UK has not presided over its own independent trade policy for 40 years, and while urgency must be injected into the development of stronger trading links with the likes of America, India and China, negotiations will be complex and will require careful consideration of potential trade-offs. The Government therefore rightly see Australia and New Zealand as a good place to start. Neither economy is especially large, but both have valuable experience from which we can learn. New Zealand was the first country to strike an FTA with China, and each antipodean nation has suggested smarter ways in which we might work together—for example, in fulfilling the demands of the burgeoning far eastern middle classes for the safe, high-quality agricultural produce they sometimes find it difficult to source in the own countries. New Zealand and Australia are also looking to deepen their strategic alliances as Chinese power in the south Pacific grows.
Strong relationships on that front could also give fresh impetus to Australia and Singapore’s pioneering work at the World Trade Organisation on e-commerce and the dismantling of barriers to digital trade, allowing us to play a more active role in the development of global standards for the kinds of services that now account for nearly 80% of our economy. That could deliver tangible economic benefits to our own citizens.
We can also use the development of our independent trade policy to deepen ties with other natural allies, such as the US, working together to cement norms on financial and professional services regulation and strengthening our military and defence co-operation. The US and UK have already set up a working group to discuss stronger trading ties post Brexit, and the Department for International Trade and the FCO are investing more in personnel across the US, but to maximise opportunities for UK businesses we shall need much deeper engagement at state level. In that regard, I fear we are moving towards greater use of temporary contracts and less attractive salary packets, making it difficult to attract in-country staff of the right quality and with the right contacts. I would appreciate the Minister’s thoughts on the Government’s approach to recruitment and on whether we are attracting the right candidates.
I would also like to echo some of the things my hon. Friend Mr Seely said about the importance of the BBC. Looking at it on an anecdotal basis, I have tried on recent trips abroad to source BBC material on the television and the internet, but it has been very difficult, whereas other countries, such as Russia and China, are stepping up their soft power messaging via their media outlets.
Much of the work we do internationally over the coming years will relate to how China emerges on to the world stage, and we must give urgent priority to developing our approach to that nation’s increasing economic, diplomatic and military ambition. The sheer scale of its population, and its growing wealth, means that nations across the globe will very quickly be faced with questions over the extent to which that wealth and influence should be embraced, managed or indeed actively resisted.
When I was in Kenya over the summer, I was struck by the colossal scale of Chinese investment in east African ports and roads. Trade facilitation measures are welcome, but the debt arrangements for those investments are causing some concern in the region and elsewhere. There will be much more to say on that issue in the coming months, but I sense an increased appetite in such regions for alternative sources of investment that come with greater legal certainty. Here, the UK can carve a niche as countries look to diversify away from that approach, which has been presented as “no strings” but is actually beginning to reveal some conditionality. I would appreciate the Minister’s thoughts on how the FCO is approaching the belt and road initiative and on the experience he has had in the countries with which he has influence.
Charting our new global path beyond the EU will not be easy, and there is no room for complacency, nostalgia or timidity. However, those who believe the UK to be an irrelevance on the international stage are wrong. If we get our strategy right, Britain can be at the very forefront of shaping the governance of new technologies and upholding the values that will change people’s lives in the 21st century.