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Speaking to Bright Blue, the independent think tank for liberal conservatism, the former deputy to Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office, Sir Alan Duncan, has slated the Government’s foreign policy agenda and suggested that the current policy approach is inadequate to address the UK’s global challenges. 

Bright Blue interviewed the outspoken former Foreign Office and International Development minister as part of the new edition of its Centre Write magazine, released today, on the theme of defence and security in the twenty-first century. In the interview, Sir Alan said:

“‘Global Britain’ is utterly meaningless, until they explain the details of what it means in practice. It is nothing more than a slogan which conjures up a wish to play our part in the world, whatever that means, and to signal that we still think we matter, without saying how, where, and to what extent. Rather like ‘levelling up’, these vacuous slogans amount to nothing unless properly defined.”

He continued:

“Politicians talk in hyperbolic superlatives like ‘Global Britain’ and claiming we are still the best in the world. We need to get real, be dignified, and recognise that we are an upper-medium power, with good alliances and prospects, but we are not the hub of a massive empire anymore, and the language we use sometimes is self-deluding, and converts in some cases into distasteful and risible nationalism. You cannot build a foreign policy or a lasting national reputation on the back of such idiocy.”

He bemoaned the characterisation of the COP26 climate summit as a foreign policy opportunity for the UK:

“We are so stuck on everything else, we think that COP26 is an issue of foreign policy. It’s not; it’s an issue of collective environment policy, which is not the same as having to deal with conflicts and differences of culture. Although it is indeed global in one sense, it’s literally a ‘cop’ out.”

On the Government’s record on LGBT rights, Sir Alan expressed sympathy with the Government on the issue of gender identity, but said that he can’t understand the ongoing delay to banning ‘conversion therapy’:

“I can understand that when it comes to gender identification, it’s a complicated issue and people get very emotional about it, so it’s difficult to make legislative progress. When it comes to conversion therapy, I simply don’t understand why it is facing obstacles to be put into law. The problem with this Government in general is that nobody explains the decisions they take… There shouldn’t be any exceptions when it comes to the ban. It is either a correct piece of legislation or it isn’t.”

He added that he is not concerned by the decision by Government departments and agencies to withdraw from Stonewall’s diversity scheme:

“I think some of the Stonewall agenda has become so apart from what one might call mainstream thinking; they’ve become a bit odd. I don’t see the decisions on Stonewall as anti-LGBT at all. I see it as the Government having difficulty embracing what Stonewall is saying. In any case, I don’t think the Government should have anybody else’s agenda on these issues, apart from their own. The Government should set an example by having their own diversity policy and by making it an example for others to follow. The Government shouldn’t contract out these things, and instead take ownership of it themselves.”

Reflecting on the Government’s response to the pandemic, Sir Alan said of the Prime Minister’s performance:

“He has had good moments and bad moments. I don’t think that anybody else could have galvanised the country into lockdown at the start like he did. Could anybody really see Jeremy Corbyn doing that? Of course, he was sick himself for a bit, he made a mess of PPE because he can never grasp any detail, and the appointment of Dominic Cummings was totally wrong because the worst aspect of modern government is the rise of special advisers who think they are more important than ministers. They are not; they are a constitutional aberration that should be largely pruned.”

In his article for Centre Write, the Rt Hon Tobias Ellwood MP, Chair of the Defence Committee, warned that the UK’s shrinking military leaves us vulnerable:

 “We know we are more vulnerable than during the Cold War, when we spent 4% of GDP on defence. We cannot possibly match today’s threats on a peacetime budget of 2.2%. Although the Integrated Review has got us investing in our cyber and space resilience, without an increase in overall defence spending, our conventional military power will wither on the vine.

“Over the next five years our Royal Navy surface fleet will become smaller than Italy’s. The British Army is the smallest it has been for 200 years. Tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, and nearly 10,000 troops will disappear. We won’t be able to transport or protect what’s left as we also lose 24 Typhoons, all our Hercules and Puma aircraft, and some of our Chinooks. Most worryingly, only 48 of the 138 F-35 Lightning jets are ordered.

“It’s not just about hard power, but soft power too. Our failure in Afghanistan is an extreme example where the wise use of soft power was trumped by faith in hard power alone. Now is not the time to cap our defence spending, and we certainly should not be reducing our overseas aid budget.”

In his article for Centre Write, the Rt Hon Sir David Lidington, the former de facto Deputy Prime Minister, said of the security threats to the UK following the withdrawal from Afghanistan: 

“The political shock of the West’s defeat in Afghanistan has hammered home the truth that we can no longer take for granted some of the key assumptions that have underpinned much of the public and parliamentary thinking about our country’s security… The international order established after the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union is visibly and rapidly fraying.”

On the ongoing reliability of the United States as a security partner, he said:

“‘America First’ is a slogan associated with Donald Trump, but the idea predates his presidency. President Obama insisted that Britain and France had to take responsibility for leading allied action in Libya, and now President Biden has decided to stick with his predecessor’s commitment to a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan, with scant regard paid to the views of coalition partners. 

“This is not isolationism, but rather a ruthless focus on those things that matter most to US interests. Allies, especially those in Europe, including the UK, are expected to spend more on their own security and take responsibility for leadership in regions like Africa and the Balkans, which are a lesser priority for Washington.”

On how the UK should proceed after Afghanistan, he added:

“The UK will need to modernise its hard power – spend more on robots, drones, cyber and space – and maintain, rather than cut, our soft power capabilities like our aid programme and the British Council.”

In his article for Centre Write, the Rt Hon Sir Lockwood Smith, the former High Commissioner of New Zealand to the United Kingdom, argued that the British foreign policy should tilt to the Asia-Pacific: 

“Acceding to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) would have an impact way beyond the narrow economic cost-benefit analysis. It would engage the United Kingdom with one of the most rapidly growing parts of the world. But more importantly, it would help bring the dynamism of the Asia-Pacific to the doorstep of Europe.”

He encouraged the UK to pursue a bilateral trade deal with India as part of ‘Global Britain’, citing the countries’ historic ties:

“All are aware that the full potential of the Asia-Pacific region won’t be realised without India. Hence the current thinking around the Indo-Pacific. Many countries have tried to negotiate free trade agreements with India. Most have struggled and developed countries have failed to achieve anything like a comprehensive FTA. Britain’s relationship with India goes back a long way and is deeper rooted than most. The chance for Britain to ease open the door to free trade with India is real. If anyone can do it, Britain can.”

This edition of Bright Blue’s Centre Write magazine also includes contributions from Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, Nathan Law, Chair of the Commonwealth APPG, Andrew Rosindell MP, Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, Danny Sriskandarajah, Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, Jill Rutter, and many more.