The last thing the Liberal Democrats need is an ethical foreign policy


In yesterday’s article I alluded to ‘a central contradiction going on in the Liberal Democrats at the moment: the incompatible melange of pro-asylum seeker and pro-interventionist rhetoric and ideology.’

Today, I will say firstly that I do support accepting some asylum seekers in the UK; in accordance with a rather hard-headed ethic of prudence and restraint, rather than the gushy sentimentality that so often afflicts our party (of which more shortly). I will also say that my reasons for accepting asylum seekers are completely different from some dominant lines of discussion in the Liberal Democrats; and that this is far from inconsequential.

What does this mean?

I cannot deny that politics cannot be based purely on ‘bare reason.’ Rhetoric is a fundamental part of politics; any party not wishing to be condemned to the electoral wilderness is obliged to take heed of Pascal’s reasons of the heart, as much as Dawkins’ or Hitchen’s reasons of the head. But I do not base my support for a ‘prudentially inclusive’ asylum policy (a policy neither ‘exclusive’ nor ‘sentimentally exclusive’) because of gushy, bleeding heart cant about ‘our common humanity,’ ‘the greater good,’ and other such ‘bad poetry from bad poets.’

To be brutally frank, such rhetoric generally strikes me as inauthentic and self-serving. I support our welcoming of asylum seekers not because ‘we are all in this together,’ but because our recent governments and parliaments have inflicted great wrongs upon the peoples of the Middle East and of North Africa. Here, justice must prevail over mercy; and if our thwarted Portias cannot bear this, so much for melodramatic performance theatre! It is right to accept asylum seekers not because of gushy sentimentality, but because, in the most hard-hearted way possible, ‘we’ have messed their country up beyond repair (and please do feel free to substitute the word ‘messed up’ with any suitable and more rigorous alternative you can think of).

And it is for this reason, and not because of trite appeals to the greater good of our common humanity and other flamboyant claptrap, that I support accepting asylum seekers in the UK. A wrong has been perpetrated, and although it cannot be atoned for, some restitution must be made.

But it seems that some want to have it both ways. Take the line of least resistance in terms of resisting Uncle Sam’s threats and promises; and then when things go wrong, claim the moral high ground, blaming the Tories for being hard of heart. This is radically incoherent; far better not to meddle and interfere in the first place; yet now there is talk of dropping Vaclav Havel’s proverbial ‘humanitarian bombs’ on Libya. The ‘ethical foreign policy’ trajectory of the Liberal Democrats is dragging us morally, if not also electorally, off the edge of a cliff.

So, let’s have no more pious platitudes about ethics, and let’s get our moral baseline right first. If you want an ‘ethical foreign policy,’ then do please feel free to help Tony Blair set up a new party for more intrusive meddling. So-called ‘ethics’ may well have its place; but sometimes, having a basic moral compass is more important. Before you worry about what you’re not doing, try and think about what you are doing first. It is beyond all doubt that any contemptuous refusal to get our priorities in order will be utterly fatal.

And tragically enough, the word ‘fatal’ is very far from a metaphor.

No, it will not touch you.

But the same cannot be said for everyone in this world.

Remember your privilege.


* Jonathan Ferguson is a PhD student. His socio-economic views are progressive/left liberal, with strongly libertarian leanings on non-interventionism, privacy and freedom of speech.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Eddie Sammon 3rd May '16 - 3:48pm

    Jonathan, if you focused your anti-intervention case on outrage over civilian casualties and damaged local economies then it would make your case stronger.

    I struggle a lot to see how people can get outraged over intervention per se. As Maajid Nawaz has said: a lack of intervention can radicalise people too.

    A better way to Keep Britain safe would be to develop a United Nations anti-terrorism force – that way we get the intervention without the big target sign on our backs!

  • “The last thing the Liberal Democrats need is an ethical foreign policy”.

    What a great (not) slogan.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd May '16 - 11:50pm


    You are welcome to your views , but as someone also very welcoming of newer members even I , from the view of wanting a broad church , am perplexed by this .

    I think your whole stance sits oddly with our party , it looks more like the sort of stance left Labour or the Greens believe.

    Liberalism and social democracy is ethical and pragmatic , it is idealistic and realistic.It is internationalist and localist .It is not pacifist if it is without the compassion or the humanity added , which you decry ! It is odd that you have chosen this party .And interesting .Why ?

  • Simon Banks 4th May '16 - 9:42am

    The central proposition of this post is ill-thought-out and illogical. There is also a rhetorical juxtaposition of false alternatives (reason versus rhetoric, for example).

    Values cannot be based purely on Reason. Reason helps us work out what our values mean, particularly in terms of action. Politics cannot be freed of value-judgements and this is nothing to do with rhetoric. I cannot derive my caring about the survival of other species, or my belief that the lives of people in other countries should matter as much to me as the lives of people in Britain, purely from Reason; and yet these beliefs are in no way anti-rational.

    Nothing is more rhetorical than setting up “gushy sentimentality” against Reason. It looks as if Jonathan does not believe feelings should play any part in political decisions. This sets him against just about everyone outside the hard materialist right and the what’s-in-it-for-me-none-of-my-business anti-politicians. If I care about the fate of people who have been tortured and think I should do something about it, yes, this cannot be justified purely by Reason; and yet it’s misuse of language to describe it as “gushy sentimentality”. By that line of argument the surge of new members who joined the Liberal Democrats because they felt they should do something about the election result were being weakly sentimental.

    There is a legitimate use of the word “sentimentality” as criticism. That applies when someone has legitimate feelings and fails to apply logic or perceptiveness to their thoughts about action that flows from them. For example, to believe any hard-luck story is sentimental (but to reject evidence on what really works in the criminal justice system is anti-sentimental illogicality). To devote much energy to opposing factory farming while doing nothing about threats to whole eco-systems is sentimental (which is not to say that campaigning against factory farming is wrong).

    An ethical foreign policy should mean one based on fundamental values. One that isn’t is based on narrow self-interest and we are an internationalist party in our very bones. It should not mean shying away from hard decisions: for example, we may condemn Putin’s actions in the Ukraine but decide that ending the conflict in Syria is more important and we can’t achieve our aims in both places at the same time.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th May '16 - 1:38am


    Thank you for your excellent manners and considered approach , on this .In that , far more even than your views , which , like many of us I am sure vary , you seem to display qualities both at home and welcome , in our Liberal , Democratic party !

    You talk a lot of sense in your specific response to me . I would like all our members to stop the labelling of members , in an era of self describing that can get a little vague , even confusing , if someone decent , non racist , well mannered ,says they are a Liberal Democrat and pays their subs and respects those other decent members even when they disagree ,would be welcomed as such , we would be better off as a party .

    You never know , some may even forgive Nick Clegg ?!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th May '16 - 1:25pm


    Very full and thoughtful response , thank you. I agree that members angry with Nick Clegg are so because of missed opportunities and mistakes he and others made.Your being able to accept him and the party warts and all, even with the strong differences you have , says a lot about you ,and those who are more personalised and bitter than you , in their approach .

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