Hannah Bettsworth’s speech to the Liberal Democrat Voice fringe meeting at Conference

20th Sep 2015 conference LDV fringeOne of the highlights of Conference for me was the Liberal Democrat Voice fringe meeting. We wanted to do something a bit more serious this year and, as foreign policy is a key interest of several of our team members, we decided to discuss how we forged a liberal foreign policy in these challenging times. What is liberal interventionism all about.

We are extremely grateful to our four speakers. Baroness Julie Smith stepped in at the very last minute so we especially appreciate her thoughtful contribution. We also heard from Lord William Wallace, from our Lords Foreign Affairs team, Nick Tyrone, now at British Influence, and Hannah Bettsworth, President of Liberal Youth Scotland, who specialises in international relations and has as special interest in gender mainstreaming, ensuring that the interests of women and girls are considered in every aspect of policy development.

Hannah’s speech was described by one member of the audience as one of the best on foreign policy he’d heard in a long time, so we thought it might be a good idea to reproduce it here. Hannah wants to credit Tim Oliver for his help and advice in pulling it together. Enjoy.

This is the first time I’ve ever spoken at a fringe event, and I would like to thank Caron Lindsay for giving me the chance to do that. At first, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to fill 8 minutes, because I’ve never given a speech that long in my life.

But then, I remembered that I’ve spent about 7 years working around foreign policy issues (yes, since I was 14 – I was a young debater!) It’s a very wide topic, but there are three particular issues I would like to focus on that in my mind make up a liberal foreign policy.

1. A liberal foreign policy promotes and defends free trade and human rights
2. A liberal foreign policy focuses on diversity and intersectionality in everything it does
3. A liberal foreign policy is not afraid to make a forceful defence of its principles where necessary

So – free trade and human rights. I was thinking about this recently, because of Jeremy Corbyn’s election and his woeful foreign policy. My major problem with the left and with socialists is that they have a tendency to view the West as universally bad and to cuddle up to anyone who opposes the USA. In my mind, a liberal foreign policy recognises that the USA is not perfect, and that it does things that do not sit comfortably with our philosophy, but that as a hegemonic power it shares far more of our liberal values than other states seeking to take that place would. The Russia Today and Press TV conspiracy culture is what I’m talking about, where our opponents share links from those sources proclaiming the evils of Westminster (can you tell I’m Scottish?) or Washington. I spent a year abroad in Spain, where one of our sister parties has a foreign policy focus on holding Venezuela to account for human rights abuses – states in Latin America all too often get a ‘pass’ because they’re viewed as being economic models for a social democracy. This model has quite substantial failings and the populist left can be tackled on this front – pointing out that it both does not work in practice and is harmful to rights and freedoms.

The values we have – of free trade and free people – bring prosperity and economic growth while reducing poverty. Those are the kind of things we should be shouting from the rooftops. As liberals, we should have no time for the conspiracy culture – busting myths where they hold back the world from making economic and social advances. Regional free trade agreements are the way forward – TTIP is a good example of this, and I am proud that we stand up to the conspiracy theorists and leftist Eurosceptics who would hold us back on this. I want the UK to be at the forefront of a Europe that breaks down barriers and allows all its citizens to get on in life, not limiting the opportunities that they have.

That brings me on nicely to point 2. I worked in the Department for International Development recently – and I can’t say too much about it, but although free trade lifts people out of poverty, we need to ensure that everyone can access the programs we provide. For example, female entrepreneurs need to have the same access to credit as men have. When we create jobs, we need to make sure that there is sanitary provision for women, people with disabilities and non-binary/trans people. Under the last government, DFID started to mainstream gender – in English as opposed to Civil Service-ish – this means that if you want to apply for funding, you have to consider how your project will improve the lives of girls and women. In everything we do with foreign policy, we have to think about how that will impact not just those who identify as female, but those who are LGBT+, people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, and both the young and old. Disasters have a disproportionate impact on women, the elderly and people with disabilities. Think about displaced women left taking care of children while the male breadwinner seeks safety and stability abroad. Think about the elderly and people with disabilities struggling to evacuate in the face of impending flooding or tsunamis. Orphaned children and teenagers post-Ebola crisis often struggle to access the resources their parents had, including their stakes in development projects – and it’s these people we need to think of when we form our policies. We made a start on this in government, but we also made a crucial error in assuming that gender is a binary issue – third genders exist in a number of cultures, and the British government cannot help the people it needs to help most if it does not recognise – at home and abroad – that not everyone is male or female. Hijra – transgender – people in India have participated in road traffic safety campaigns in the past, and underprivileged groups can quite easily make good leaders. They are naturally resilient, having overcome challenges in their daily lives, and we need to tap the potential of these people to effectively promote development.

Finally, point 3, and this may be controversial. My single biggest problem with Tony Blair is that he wrecked the principle of the Responsibility to Protect. Intervening in Iraq tarnished Britain’s credentials as a defender of human rights, and has led to reluctance to intervene militarily in any circumstance that is not entirely clear-cut. The issue here is that nothing in International Relations is clear-cut. Decisions have to be made with partial information in a rapidly changing situation. Sometimes, we will have to get over this reluctance and use military force. Where a state cannot or will not protect its citizens, the international community has a duty to step in and do so for them. We should not be afraid of intervention – it’s not always pretty, and there can never be a guarantee that it will be 100% effective. But if we want a free and fair world, we have to be prepared to defend our values where they come under violent attack. In the event we intervene, we must do so for the long haul and back it up with development support – abandoning states to develop themselves just after the targeted leader or regime was gone has contributed to a lot of the power vacuums and crises we see in the Middle East currently. My liberalism is not one that sits by the sidelines and lets people suffer under regimes that actively commit war crimes against their own people because it’s too politically difficult to sell at home. My liberalism is preventing genocides – my liberal foreign policy is Kosovo, not Rwanda. Foreign policy is always going to be complex and morally difficult – but to borrow a principle from first aid, I would prefer to be there and not be needed than to not be called out and for people to suffer.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Peter Bancroft 4th Oct '15 - 11:18am

    Good speech, though I think the reference to human rights without connecting it to the need for liberal democracy was unfortunate. Democracy is the foundation of human rights (not sufficient, but required) and as a liberal party it is up to us to challenge the orientalist consensus amongst left-wing parts of the NGO community that all we need in countries like Belarus, Azerbaijan and further afield is for the Dictator to stop acting quite so unpleasantly.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Oct '15 - 3:56pm

    Good speech. I particularly like the part about willingness to act with partial information. Once the important facts have been established then in an emergency that is broadly enought to act.

    I’m also concerned about anti westernism when it comes to the Yemen war. It seems to me that when the Iranian backed Houthis kill civilians there is a lot less noise than when Saudi Arabia do. It is a topic by itself, but I think something worth looking into.

    I don’t agree what all of “the West’s” foreign policy, but I think it is definitely a good thing for liberals to lead the way on this. Labour are abandoning hard headed foreign policy and I don’t trust the Conservatives to get the job done right in this area either; although I have to say at the moment I think Cameron is strong at it.

    Finally, all foreign policy should have the greatest concern for civilians. Liberals wanting to use the military does not mean we want to go around bombing residential areas.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Oct '15 - 4:00pm

    I don’t agree with all of “the west’s” foreign policy that was meant to say. Sorry, predictive text.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Oct '15 - 7:29pm

    What a great speeech

  • Geoffrey payne 5th Oct '15 - 7:36am

    I think the foreign policy challenge of today is that we want to support human rights an democracy around the world at a time when our power to achieve this as as national government and as a member of NATO is very much in de line. We need to understand why British foreign policy has failed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Ukraine. Such glaring failures but little discussion and bout why that was and what we should learn from that in relation to future conflicts. That is the speech I for one am waiting for.
    That all said I am delighted to see new faces discussing these issues – there was very little debate taking place during the Coalition when these things were going on.

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