Opinion: After the reshuffle: how can we still claim internationalism?

The reshuffle: the talking point of the last few days. I’m sure we all feel a bit angry and flustered after the Tory side was announced – Hunt at health, Miller as equalities. It really could not have been much less liberal. Our side, though, may at first appear entirely less interesting, and far more acceptable. There were some great moves in the reshuffle, sure. Jo Swinson as an Undersecretary of State. David Laws is back. This reshuffle, though, has cut out something essential to the Liberal Democrats: our internationalism. Lib Dems gone from FCO. No Lib Dems in the MOD. One minister, Lynne Featherstone, in DFID. And Lynne’s briefing (at the time of writing) has still not been an announced. This reshuffle represents an almost complete retreat from international affairs.

Internationalism is one of the things the Lib Dems pride ourselves on: our attitude to the European Union is really quite distinctive amongst mainstream politics, we work closely with our sister parties, and our opposition to the Iraq war was certainly amongst the most vocal. Foreign Affairs is not a fairly ‘non-partisan’ area, as I had it put to me. There are huge divergences in Liberal Democrat and Conservative policy here, and now we have absolutely no one fighting our corner, it seems. Even Lynne in DFID isn’t really going to have much of a say: when behind-closed-door discussion takes place on the European Union, the Eurozone crisis, our involvement in NATO, renewal of Trident, and our relationship with the US, particularly with the upcoming Presidential elections, and other big issues at the moment, DFID are hardly the most involved.

Clegg has done, and will presumably continue, to take a keen interest in international affairs. Our only point of influence at the moment it seems. But he’s still Deputy Prime Minister. He may have influence but his interest and involvement has to encompass… well… everything. To even consider for a moment that he and his team will be able to follow international events and issues closely enough that this government’s foreign policy will have a proper Lib Dem stamp on it is naive, and downright ridiculous.

Internationalism is, to me anyway, a key part of our liberalism. It feels like we’ve given up a little bit more of ourselves in this reshuffle. Maybe just too much…

So: why the withdrawal? Is there anything that can justify it? Is it because foreign affairs isn’t necessarily a huge vote winner? Ahem, Mr Clegg… Elections to the European Parliament are just around the corner, in 2014. How exactly can we base our platform here, for international elections, on having practically given up our involvement in government foreign policy? If there is way, it escapes me.

Whatever the reasoning behind this move, it definitely requires an explanation. And I just can’t see how there is one.

* Harriet Ainscough is a former International Officer of Liberal Youth.

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  • Harriet Ainscough 7th Sep '12 - 3:54pm

    I should point out that what I mean by internationalism is also the limited definition above; thanks for that 🙂

  • Charles Beaumont 7th Sep '12 - 7:57pm

    I think the internationalism principle (according to the above definition which I also support) is very important but I’m not sure that having J browne as a minister added much to that (and he was a good minister). The key forum is the NSC: Clegg sits on that. I’d trade FCO and MOD for some real influence on domestic policy that actually delivers us some public recognition.

  • Going back to the period up to around 1997, we were a party very strong on foreign policy (in the days of the Liberal Party, as well as since merger). We seem to have become more parochial since then, which is strange, with two influential MEPs elected in 2005, Clegg and Huhne (I had to check that date!!) In fact I think our policies have become more unambitious, and “smaller” generally – a bit disappointing, really.

  • Harriet Ainscough 7th Sep '12 - 10:00pm

    Geoff – I agree. It’s a real issue that there aren’t more of our MPs focussed on foreign policy in general. But there are some. Maybe someone from the Lords would have been best? (you mention a few)

    Charles – I think it’s clear I disagree with you here. Of course it’d be great to have some real influence on domestic policy – but as coalition partners we should be getting that anyway! Withdrawing almost entirely from a major policy area in order to focus our efforts elsewhere seems to be to be too far. It also isn’t clear from the reshuffle (at least to me) that our influence in domestic policy is likely to increase significantly. I do wonder whether the reasoning behind this move wasn’t disimilar to yours, though. I’d be really interested to find out. 🙂

    Tim13 – Yes, I agree completely. It’s devestating that the internationalism which, at least in my eyes, is so central to liberalism seems to have been shoved aside.

  • Harriet Ainscough 7th Sep '12 - 10:23pm

    Geoff – please ignore that comment: I am far too tired *mind blank*. I think we do have some MPs with enough of an interest in foreign affairs – Martin Horwood’s been a pretty great spokesman on it. His role as a scrutiniser is going to be a lot harder without any MPs with direct, everyday, access to FCO or MoD. There’s always the problem of who knows enough to be put where in the LDs, we just don’t have that many MPS 😛 so everyone needs to be an expert on everything. More MPs than not, however, do seem to take an interest in foreign affairs and I’m sure most would be more than happy to end up in FCO!

  • Richard Dean 8th Sep '12 - 12:34am

    There has been no retreat, Some aspects of our internationalism are no longer in government, but they are still in us!

  • Charles Beaumont 8th Sep '12 - 1:35pm

    Harriet, it’s a fair point that the reshuffle might not actually deliver much in terms of enhanced domestic policy. I think the more important point is the one about MPs. You don’t need access to the FCO/MOD to have an insight into foreign affairs, but having MPs with real international experience like Horwood makes a huge difference. I actually work in international policy issues and I’m struck by how little there is an interest on LDV and about the really big questions, like the Arab Spring or Syria.

  • Charles Beaumont 9th Sep '12 - 5:46pm

    No, there’s a substantial difference between a department where you have a domestic implementation programme (like equalities) and foreign policy. A lot of foreign policy influence comes from things like Chatham House, select committees etc. I agree that LDs should care about the difficult bits but for that to happen we need the national membership and orgs such as centreforum to be showing some creativity and leadership as we are on domestic policy.
    Give me one foreign policy change that you can attribute to LDs having a minister at the FCO as opposed to Clegg’s influence at the centre.

  • Charles Beaumont 9th Sep '12 - 6:29pm

    Anyway, this exchange has prompted me to practice what I preach and write something on FP for LDV.

    for that, thanks Harriet!

  • Harriet Ainscough 10th Sep '12 - 3:53pm

    @Geoff – I am very proud that you felt the need to say ‘even Liberal Youth’ aren’t saying much.!We do try out best to raise the issues we don’t feel are being talked about as much as they deserve. 😀 The Iran/Israel issue is one that should be being discussed, but at the same time, its very hard to discuss an issue properly when its so hard to find out what’s properly going on!

    @Charles – I’m glad you’re going to write about foreign policy. I’ll be sure to read your post when it’s up. To respond to your comment about foreign policy issues that happened as a result of LDs in FCO rather than Clegg, I would agree that its hard to pin point. I don’t however, think that’s the issue here. I think it’s incredibly unlikely that any influence Clegg has had over foreign policy would have been as great, or even present at all, ahd we not had LDs in FCO and MoD focussing on the issues, and feeding back to Clegg. We just won’t have that in the same way any more. It’s not just the loss of specific ministers focus – but also those working for them. Now we only have (I believe anyway…) one SPAD whose focus is foreign policy. That’s a huge reduction in the number of people developing the knowledge to properly advise Clegg when it does come to these decisions.

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