How much should the Lib Dems focus on UK foreign policy?

I once used the phrase ‘No-one is going to vote Lib Dem because of our policy on Azimstana’. The point is an obvious one; surveys show us that the average British voter is more concerned about domestic issues such as health, education, welfare, employment, immigration and crime. Understandably so.

However, there are three very good reasons why, notwithstanding, we need to invest time in foreign policy, international relations and the global economy.

First, UK foreign policy does from time to time come to the fore in the mind of the voting public and we have to be on top of the issues, rather than ‘reactive’. This is especially so if we are to hold government to account and from time to time oppose aspects of government foreign policy. We have to be prepared for this; you can’t fatten a pig on market day, as the phrase goes. Our policy on Iraq helped us win more than 60 seats in parliament, and was a culmination of much work. We may end up having a different policy to the government on Russians being poisoned, on the Turkish attacks on Kurds in Syria, on conflict in the Pakistani tribal areas, or even on a potential attack by NATO on North Korea.

Some such issues also have an impact on how 10 million ‘diaspora’ vote in UK elections.

Second, in a globalised world almost all domestic policy has international dimensions, and to be on top of domestic policy we have to understand these dimensions … or be prepared to be surprised more often than is good for us. For example, Trans-Atlantic trade treaties can affect the NHS, significant crime in the UK is linked to ‘mafias’ from Europe, Asia and South America, and a factory might close due to illegal subsidies elsewhere. There have been large numbers of refugees entering the UK from Eritrea, where there is no war. Why? In education, can we learn from Singapore, Estonia and Japan, and discover why their school maths skills are so much better than the UK?

Third, there is what is called the wholesale-versus-retail of policy. In leaflets and media interviews the public hears from the Lib Dems directly. However, in many cases, our messages are intermediated by journalists, think tankers, and go-to experts; the ‘wholesale market’ of policy. To be successful with this, credibility is key. Considered understanding of the impact of China’s massive economy on the UK, is necessary for future economic policy, for example. We have to be credible on such topics with these ‘intermediaries’, and this takes time and preparation.

To this end the Party has an infrastructure around foreign policy, supporting our parliamentarians and where necessary, local & regional parties; advisers in parliament, the Federal International Relations Committee, party groups like ‘Lib Dem Friends of ..’ organisations, and lots of meetings during and outside Conferences.

For example, under the auspices of Liberal International (British Group), Lib Dems have organised a forum on the conflict in Yemen on 19th March. The last such meeting was on Moldova and Ukraine, and future forums will focus on Africa and China. All Lib Dems may attend.

If you are interested in international affairs and foreign policy as a Lib Dem, attending internationally-orientated meetings at Conference and outside is always a good step. How much we focus on foreign policy is to a great extent up to you the members.

The LIBG Yemen forum is at the National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE Monday 19th March 2018, 1830hrs. All welcome.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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  • Paul Reynolds 15th Mar '18 - 5:20pm

    Before you ask …. Azimstana is a fictitious country invented by my students when I ran an MA programme in London (MA Economic and Governmental Reform), and was used to create problem-solving ‘hypothicals’ in seminars.

  • Interesting article, Paul and good to see this focus on foreign policy.
    The Great Offices of State – Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary are the tripod on which national prosperity, security and the rule of law rests. An effective Foreign Policy is as essential to national well-being as the public finances, policing and justice system.
    Alliances require continual investment and engagement in diplomacy if they are to be counted upon when the need arises, as we have seen with current events around our relations with Russia.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Mar '18 - 7:26pm

    Democrats in USA claim election win in Pennsylvania

  • Richard O'Neill 15th Mar '18 - 8:41pm

    It definitely is one of those paradoxes. Voters generally show scant interest in foreign policy until events actually affect them (or seem to affect them). Everybody’s now talking about the Salisbury attack, but aren’t particularly interested in related events around the globe.

    A major problem is that the liberal international worldview we have championed is under great threat. Not just from Russia and China but also from our traditional allies in the US and Europe.

    There aren’t really any easy answers, but I hope Lib Dems continue to have a well-rounded view of foreign policy. Something that potential rivals (Ukip, Green, SNP) mostly lack.

  • Carol Weaver 15th Mar '18 - 9:12pm

    As someone who regularly travels to ‘Azimstana’, I completely agree with what you say Paul. The Lib Dems have many experts on international affairs and can influence both UK and EU policy. We can also call on outside experts to speak on important issues such as Yemen so I am looking forward to Lib International’s event at the NLC on Monday.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Mar '18 - 6:40pm

    One of our issues is being distinctive while showing true British values such as courage, compassion and fairness. Charles Kennedy combined these in opposing the war in Iraq and gave us a legacy. Let’s build on that and pounce on those present issues, showing us as a Party worth voting for. What about those defending human rights or upholding democracy in far flung countries?

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