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The Nandy doctrine: renewing the ‘moral commitment’ to an ‘ethical’ foreign policy

Lisa Nandy delivering a speech on the UK's place in a post-Brexit world in RSA House, London, January 2020 | PA Images

7 min read

The shadow foreign secretary has made it her aim to win the argument on internationalism. Sebastian Whale explains

For Labour’s Lisa Nandy, 2014 was the year that British foreign policy went in a different, unwelcome direction. As William Hague departed the FCO, George Osborne pursued trade deals with countries such as China, hailing what he described as a "golden era" of UK-Sino relations.

"Rather than a foreign policy, Britain adopted a path of economic and trade policy which subsumed everything else," Nandy tells us. This shift to, as Nandy sees it, a ‘trade first, values second’ approach has precipitated a fall in the UK’s global standing, she argues.

"The dominance of economics and trade relationships at the cost of other terms of engagement has been really damaging for Britain and has been damaging globally," she says.

"Not least because what we’ve seen is that if you neglect issues like human rights, you increase instability across the world; if you neglect issues like climate change, then you can’t possibly build a solid economic foundation globally. 

"All of these things are intertwined, and if we hadn’t learned that already, we do need to learn that now. There has got to be a much more comprehensive, internationalist, values-based approach from Britain going forward."

Labour has always had a very, very strong commitment to ethical foreign policy, and that is a moral commitment that I’m determined we will renew

Appointed shadow foreign secretary in early April, Nandy has begun to flesh out her global vision: one based on internationalism and working collaboratively with like-minded partners. "Labour has always had a very, very strong commitment to ethical foreign policy, and that is a moral commitment that I’m determined we will renew," she says. "We’ve always been a party that understands the value of internationalism. We know that the circumstances of working people are directly comparable in different parts of the world, and that if you want to tackle working conditions and improve the lives of working people here, you have to do it in other countries as well."

She adds: "I am determined that we’re going to show there is a progressive alternative to the path that we’ve been treading for the last few years; one that looks out to the rest of the world in order to safeguard our interests at home."

Labour’s claim to being an internationalist party – evidenced by its involvement with global institutions such as Nato – will have to be renewed. "It’s an argument that we haven’t won with the public in recent years," admits Nandy. "We saw that very starkly with the EU debate, where in parts of our electoral base, we just couldn’t win that argument." She adds: "It is something that we’ve got to take seriously as a party and we’ve got to win."

The political space appears to be opening up for Nandy to put forward the case for internationalism. The pandemic has precipitated discussion over the UK’s approach to countries such as China, whose handling of the crisis has come in for questioning. Thoughts have now broadened out to Britain’s wider strategy on the global stage.

"This was always a reality that we were going to have to confront and we are going to have to start having some answers to," says Nandy.

"It is a tragedy that it has taken a crisis of this magnitude to throw into sharp relief the folly of countries that have tried to tread a more isolationist path.

"Nevertheless, we are where we are, and we’ve got to make sure that when we come out of this, we come out of this as a changed country with a better set of values, a better set of ambitions. There will be no return to normal, so we’ve got to work what a new normal – a better normal – looks like. This is the moment when we’re going to have to take that seriously."

We are going to have to rebuild that commitment to internationalism and think seriously about where our alliances lie and how we exert influence in the world

The Tories have yet to fully flesh out the Global Britain vision that emerged during the Brexit debate. Nandy, who considered supporting a Withdrawal Agreement, says the only meaning currently derived from the phrase has been "going it alone and isolationism". "There is a growing recognition that that just won’t do. What was supposed to be about putting Britain first has actually left us last in the middle of a crisis. We can’t be here again," she asserts.

"We are going to have to rebuild that commitment to internationalism and think seriously about where our alliances lie and how we exert influence in the world."

Nandy is certain that, despite Brexit, the UK’s future "lies very much with many of those European partners". "The continuing importance of countries like France and Germany is indisputable. There are other countries too like Canada and Japan that will become increasingly important for the UK," she says.

For those of Nandy’s disposition, making the case for internationalism could hardly be more important. In many ways the global community is at a crossroads: do countries collaborate in the post-pandemic world, or do they retreat and focus more on the needs and priorities of their respective nations.

"There are populist nationalist forces arguing that the response has to be that countries close borders, turn inwards and stop cooperating with one another," says Nandy. "You can see it in the attacks that Donald Trump has made against the World Health Organisation, and the undermining of institutions like the United Nations."

She continues: "You can criticise the global leaders for lack of leadership and for the damage that they’re causing, but in many ways, those leaders are products of a shift in opinion among people across the world. 

"The lesson of the EU referendum is that there are no shortcuts to this. You have to go out and make the case for internationalism with the public and win the argument. That is something that I’m very determined that Labour is going to do."

While Nandy recognises that many international institutions have not functioned effectively during the crisis, it is in part due to a failure of global leadership. "Without political leadership, none of those organisations can succeed," she says. She also warns against feeding into a "crisis of legitimacy" by concentrating solely on the ways those organisations haven't been able to function effectively". "There are enormous successes of those institutions as well. We have got to make sure that they’re well understood among the general population," she says.

"There will always be an interest in deflecting blame for domestic failures onto international institutions. We have got to make sure that if that is a path that the Government determines that it will take in the future, we’ve got to make sure that there is an alternative being projected from Britain," she continues.

"I’ve spent a lot of time talking to progressive counterparts in other countries. That is a global challenge for all of us, and it is one that we are determined to work together in order to win the argument."

The Labour party was not at the races for the EU referendum – nor, one could argue, during the subsequent debate about Britain’s future relationship with Europe. Brexit always seemed an embuggerance to the former Labour leadership, whose eyes were set more on remoulding the British economy and society.

Perhaps Nandy has learned the lesson of the past few years that unless you make the case, you cannot be sure to win. Many of the ideals that underpinned the leadership of Cameron and Tony Blair – particularly in relation to Europe – have been undone. Complacency bequeaths defeat.

Self-defined internationalists have not been in the ascendency. The coronavirus crisis has led to a natural period of introspection on the part of nation states, as governments seek to contain their own respective outbreaks. Whether the international community comes back together to rebuild the post-pandemic world remains a concern for those of Nandy’s outlook. That is why she is determined to win the argument.

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