In December 1905 Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman (C.B.) became Prime Minister and a month later he led the Liberal Party to a landslide victory. It was by some margin the most radical government to date. 115 years ago C-B still chose the old Liberal campaign slogan of “Peace, Retrenchment, Reform”. Over a century later James Oates thinks the future success and prosperity of our country now depends on rediscovering our Radical traditions and has written three articles on translating them into a coherent programme for the future. This is the first essay: “Peace”.
Peace: The Place of Britain in the World
The challenges we face
Liberalism, from the Midlothian campaign of 1880 onwards, has always been an outward looking ideology. We understand that there are core democratic principles that do not change, no matter what the country or the culture. These principles are enshrined in the United Nations Charter and include an unbreakable commitment to the dignity of the individual, the equality of men and women and to promote the progress of human rights and social justice. The “scourge of war” can only ever be used as a final resort and in the defence of these collective values. These are fundamental Liberal principles, and indeed many Liberal politicians and thinkers have made major contributions to the cause of world peace and international justice. As Gladstone in 1880 spoke up against the crimes of the Ottomans in Bulgaria (for which, by the way he has a street named after him in Sofia), so each subsequent Liberal generation has campaigned for international democratic freedoms and against injustice.
This is why Liberals, from the beginning, have supported the European Union, because from its inception it was conceived as a project that would build peace in a continent that had experienced three major wars and several more minor wars in a single lifetime between 1870 and 1945.
In the past five years the grinding battle over British relations with the rest of Europe has overshadowed all else. The result has been an economic and political crisis that has destroyed our international reputation and threatens our very integrity as a state.
Leaving the EU has made Britain far more vulnerable to political and economic pressure from China, Russia, the US and indeed from the EU itself. In fact Britain has also been made vulnerable to subversion and corruption, and yet the report of the House of Commons Intelligence and Security committee, finally released on 21st July this year could not assess the scale of this subversion threat in the UK, because the intelligence services had been purposely denied permission to investigate. Nevertheless it would be safe to assume that a significant and ongoing Russian subversion operation against Britain has been active for several years and that it is likely that similar bribery and subversion techniques proven to have taken place in other Western states have been used against us. Such activity has included proven financial support for The Front National (now renamed Rassemblement National) in France. In the United States there are highly credible allegations of Russian support, practical and financial, for Donald Trump. Therefore in Britain close personal relationships between proven Russian intelligence operatives and several domestic political figures, such as Alex Salmond (employed by Russian propaganda channel RT) and several leading Conservatives, including significant financial contributions by Russians to the Conservative Party, is and should be, a great concern to us.
Britain is facing new threats on a daily basis. Subversion, hybrid war, and cyber war are being waged against us and we have been struggling to find an effective response. The collapse of the national standing of our country has already increased the damage inflicted from contending Russian, Chinese and indeed even American and European interests.
The cynical, transactional foreign politics of China, and Russia, and even- under Trump- the United States, are a direct threat to the principles of the UN charter which are designed to defend the interests of smaller and weaker states from larger and stronger, and as such they directly threaten British national interests. The fact that the Johnson government itself has been prepared to jettison even basic principles of international law is an act which Liberals should take very seriously, up to and including seeking prosecution for those responsible.
As part of our commitment to international justice Liberals have promoted British commitment and funding of international development. In fact, the DFID has been a noted success, promoting technology transfer and improving the lives of millions of the very poorest in the world. That success has rested on expertise and a non-transactional approach. We promote genuine goodwill to our country because we do not generally put strings attached on the assistance programmes we have funded. The decision by the Johnson government to merge DFID and the Foreign Office and to explicitly link projects to British interests will not promote Britain, and in fact will diminish the effectiveness of our programmes and the positive image we have had.
Yet the greatest, international challenge is climate change. It is only in concert that humanity can use the tools we have to stop and even reverse climate change. Again, our European allies have been most aligned in facing this challenge. Vast investment in new technologies will need to take place, and Britain, as a country vulnerable to sea level rises, must become far more active in addressing the crisis. Coordinating our own measures with those across the planet is a huge challenge, and
The continuing challenge of Putin’s Russia, the growing challenge of XI Jinping’s China and the disaster of Donald Trump in the USA underlines the need to Britain to continue to work for the principles of the UN and Atlantic charter and to restore our damaged links with the European Union.
As Liberals, we believe that our national interests are best served by an unshakable ideological commitment to these ethical norms of democracy, global justice and peace. We fought the Cold War in order to protect those core beliefs, and our support for our membership of NATO is rooted in the Atlantic Charter, upon which rests both the NATO treaty and the UN Charter. The damage that the Trump administration has done to these principles underlines why we may need to establish a foreign policy less aligned with the United States.
What we have learned is that pacifism itself does not preserve peace, it is our willingness to defend our freedoms that maintains them and promotes them. Yet our ability to defend ourselves is being compromised by new threats and the decline of a key ally, the United States, which under Donald Trump, has seriously reduced its commitment to NATO, and to a degree abandoned some of the principles upon which the Atlantic alliance was founded.
What is to be done?
The battle against climate change may begin at home, but it still requires Britain to reach out to all nations. However, we need to interact with different nations in different ways. Britain may issue a declaration of goodwill to all nations, but it will not be reciprocated. The fantasy that we can return to global influence on the back of an abbreviated form of the British Empire, CANZUK or some restructured Commonwealth is just that, a fantasy. Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders have fused their native cultures with cultures beyond the British Isles to create new, hybrid nations which do not look to UK an any way, and most likely will soon abandon the Monarchy, Neither has our historically close relationship with the United States delivered much on the battle against climate change. Meanwhile our immediate European neighbours face similar challenges to ourselves.
It is clear that our first priority is to rebuild trust with our European neighbours and major trading partners. An early goal should be to quickly restore as much as possible of the links and cooperation that the Conservatives have wilfully damaged. The problem for Britain is that for practical reasons of administration and budget disruption, immediate EU re-entry is likely to need some time to adjust to the new situation. So, while a Liberal or Liberal coalition government might seek an immediate restoration of the status quo ante, there will still need to be a period of adjustment before any return to the EU is realistically possible. This is would certainly be for a minimum of one budget round, which lasts 7 years. So Even if a decision is made to seek re-entry today, then the earliest likely re-entry date would most likely be in 2027, and the longer we delay reapplication, the less likely that even this target could be achieved. So full re-entry might need to wait until 2034. The truth is that for much of the next decade we will not be able to repair the damage that the Conservatives have inflicted, and for the time being there is not the political will to even begin such a process.
In the interim, Britain will need to tackle the failings in its own defence and while aligning our trade and wider economic policies with the EU, this will be on the basis of minimising the damage rather than proactively contributing leadership to the European Union.
Meanwhile, even post-Trump, the United States will be asking the European allies to contribute more to their own defence. In this area, Britain can contribute greatly. Although the West European Union of European NATO states was declared defunct in 2011, Britain could lead the drive for a replacement that could co-ordinate the European NATO states, including non-EU states such as Norway, Iceland, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Turkey. Equally, relationships with neutral EU member states, such as Ireland, Austria and especially Finland and Sweden could become closer. For historical reasons Sweden and Finland have struggled to accept membership of NATO, even while they acknowledge the deadly threat that Putin’s Russia is offering them. A British policy of support and participation for a more independent European security pillar will help the European security architecture and help to rebuild trust and respect for British capabilities.
As part of that more open policy Britain should consider changing our nuclear deterrence posture. It is increasingly clear that our submarine based ballistic missiles systems are out of date. Submarines are increasingly easy to track and thus are becoming useless. More to the point, the UK Trident fleet relies on support from the United States, and in particular relies on regular refitting at the King’s Bay naval base in Georgia. It cannot be said to be an independent nuclear deterrent in any meaningful sense of the word, and the advent of the Trump administration underlines that this could be a very dangerous position for Britain. If the country is to maintain at least a minimal deterrent, then a lighter, more flexible delivery system, not to mention a cheaper one, should now be developed.
British capabilities in intelligence remain formidable, and this must be maintained. Cyber attacks are launched against us on a daily basis and the state actors behind these attacks should be challenged and defeated. This will require renewed support to operations such as GCHQ that are in the front line in this conflict.
Climate change is an ethical as well as a technical and economic challenge. The fact is that the poorest on the planet have little choice about wither the things they do to keep themselves alive harm or help the planet. One of the key successes in British overseas aid has been helping to change this.
· Make talking the climate emergency the policy priority
· Promote a foreign policy based on Liberal principles
· Rebuild our relationship with the EU, before ultimately seeking to rejoin
· Reinforce our defences against subversion and corruption
· Modernise and develop our armed forces
· Seek a lighter and cheaper form of nuclear deterrence, not dependent on the US
· Extend our capabilities in cyber and hybrid warfare
· Work with our European neighbours on key matters of military and political security
· Maintain and develop our role in international development
· Support those in authoritarian countries who wish to move to democracy and freedom