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Foreign Policy Powerhouse: The Alicia Kearns Interview

7 min read

Alicia Kearns has carved out a reputation as a global affairs expert. Amid ongoing crises across the world, she speaks to Noa Hoffman about the importance of foreign affairs, tensions on the border of Ukraine, and saving Afghans from the onslaught of the Taliban

Alicia Kearns refuses to be placed in a factional box. The 2019er MP for Rutland and Melton is guided by her own vision of conservatism. It’s an ideology she pieced together in her youth and later during stints at the NHS, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice, and the Foreign Office.

“I am not uncomfortable with the fact I don’t fit in to one of the Tory brands,” Kearns says when we meet in Portcullis House.

“When it comes to social justice I’m very centrist, but on defence, security, welfare and the economy, I’m very much to the right.”

Kearns grew up in a “left of Labour” household in Cambridgeshire, where she didn’t know any Conservatives and “thought the word ‘Tory’ was a term of offence”. But she watched her parents, who grew up in poverty, take “personal responsibility” by working hard to build a better life for their children. Their commitment to family and community planted the initial seeds of Conservative ethos in Kearns’ mind; feelings which blossomed during the MP’s post-university life in the civil service.

It was in the corridors of Whitehall that Kearns began a process of political self-discovery, re-educating herself and forming strong opinions away from the influences of family, student unions and campus activists.

“Prisoner voting was a real turning point for me, because my view is that if you have harmed your community, you have no right to have a say in it.

“It was interesting, because the Conservatives were being absolutely bashed for this and I was like, ‘I completely agree with them!’

“You have to sit back and question everything you’ve ever thought and go, ‘Well, do I actually believe it, or did I just adopt it?’”

Last month, Kearns hit the headlines when she was said to be at the centre of a 2019-intake “pork pie plot” to oust the Prime Minister – named after her constituency’s famous foodstuff.

Kearns is adamant she played no part in ringleading the operation to try to take down Boris Johnson. Rather, the MP says, she was present to discuss shared “partygate” concerns with colleagues.

“The last few weeks I’ve hated because it’s felt like a distraction,” Kearns says of the Tory civil war.

“It’s brought out the worst in some MPs in terms of loving the drama and the theatre, and the shouting and the jeering.

“It’s an anathema to the politics I want to do.”

The politics Kearns is truly focused on and actively “wants to do” is foreign policy. The 34-year-old has a passion for defence, diplomacy and security. She is a staunch advocate of Nato and the Five Eyes Anglosphere intelligence alliance, and believes deeply in the power of Global Britain to influence international order, and preserve the peace and prosperity of democratic states who share the UK’s respect for civil liberties.

Kearns has made a name for herself as a forensic inquisitor on the Foreign Affairs Committee and has impressed MPs across the Commons with her in-depth knowledge of the politics of Bosnia, China, Ukraine, Russia and Afghanistan, among others. She suggests that having foreign policy as an area of expertise is relatively rare, and laments that this arena is too often thought of, as she puts it, as a “luxury”.

“As a human, your foremost preoccupation is your security,” she says. “Security comes down to foreign affairs. Hopefully, in this country, we will never see another civil war. So the threats to us currently come from abroad.

“Look at Russia and the Salisbury attack – this is not a fanciful side hustle.”

Discussing the crisis in Afghanistan, which gripped the hearts and minds of parliamentarians last summer, Kearns tears up.

As the country fell to the Taliban, she attempted to evacuate 680 families seeking shelter in Britain. She successfully managed around 400, holding conference calls in the small hours while caring for her newborn baby.

“When everyone says it was chaos, it was awful,” Kearns says.

The MP’s personal phone number was leaked to the veteran community and to Afghans on the ground, so the former Foreign Office civil servant dealt with non-stop calls and messages for help from across the globe. Alongside liaising with the Foreign Office to secure eligible Afghans places on the government’s resettlement schemes, Kearns spent time personally fundraising to evacuate those in danger to safer neighbouring states via commercial routes – even managing to raise £12,000 in an hour by calling “random people” she “thought might have money”.

However, when a private company offering to transport fleeing families hiked their price by 300 per cent, Kearns had to give some donors their money back.

“Those weeks were some of the most emotional of my life,” Kearns says. “The idea that it was ‘Dunkirk by WhatsApp’ is 100 per cent true. Those three weeks were chaos, and we all did everything we could to get people out.”

While Kearns continues to assist at-risk Afghans, much of her attention is now focused on the crisis at the border of Ukraine and Russia. She recently visited Ukraine on a Foreign Affairs Committee trip, where she bore witness to a state desperately trying to preserve its sovereignty in the face of a neighbouring aggressor.

“It’s a really desperate state of affairs when a country has been left to feel that way,” she says.

Kearns believes Britain and its western allies should not have allowed Ukraine to reach the point of vulnerability it finds itself in today. For eight years following the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine had faced repeated threats of further invasion from Vladimir Putin, as the dictator sought to reverse what he describes as the “disintegration of historical Russia”.

“For too long the West has allowed Putin to constantly edge forward with no consequences, and if there are no consequences there is no deterrent,” Kearns says. “Essentially [we’ve] said: ‘You just crack on; we’re not going to stand up.’”

Kearns wants to see the Foreign Office employ more “deterrence diplomacy”, not just in its dealings with Russia but, where appropriate, with all hostile actors. “Diplomacy in itself is a deterrent. If you talk enough about something, and if you put enough of a spotlight on it, you can prevent things from escalating.

“When Britain convenes people, whether it’s in-country around an embassy or whether it’s an international conference, people come and listen. People respect us.”

Kearns hopes she can continue to focus on foreign affairs throughout her parliamentary career. “I want to be a voice for those whom others seek to silence. That goes from my constituents to people in Afghanistan,” she says.

“I will fail; I won’t succeed at some things. But it matters deeply to me that I feel like I’ve tried.”

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