Many tens of thousands of words had already been recorded in Hansard in response to the 937 contained in the Queen’s Speech when the House of Lords convened for the final session of debate on the Government’s plans for the next session of parliament, focusing on foreign affairs and defence.
The issue of what Liberal Democrat Lord Purvis of Tweed rightly described as the ‘unlawful’ breaking our national legal commitment – to put 0.7 per cent of our Gross National Income (GNI) to overseas development assistance – held centre place in many speeches. Lord Purvis contrasted the slashing of aid to Yemen, where people face some of the most desperate conditions on the face of this planet, while we continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia to cause further destruction, as I did in the debate on the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.
The difficulties it is creating for the UK on the international stage were very clearly outlined by Conservative Baroness Sugg (who honourably gave up her ministerial post when the decision was announced):
“At the Global Partnership for Education summit, we are asking the world to come together to raise $5 billion for global education while cutting our own funding for it by 40 per cent. For COP26, we are asking low-income countries to come forward with ambitious climate commitments while cutting our bilateral support to them by more than 50 per cent.”
Had there been a Green peer in the debate (with only two Green peers – hugely unrepresentative of our electoral support– we had only the option of speaking on two of the five days), that would undoubtedly have been one focus of their contribution.
But horror at this action, particularly senseless when the Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us that no one is safe until everyone is safe, that the UK can only be secure in a world in which poverty is tackled and education and healthcare provided to all, would only have been part of that Green contribution.
What we heard from many speakers from all sides of the House was a view of the UK’s historic and current place in international affairs that is very different to the Green view. There were a lot of self-satisfied claims about the alleged place of the UK as a champion of democracy and human rights.
There was no mention of the disastrous impacts of our military adventurism in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, or the heavy continuing weight of instability and debt from historic, long-term support for despotic regimes from those of Mobuto Sese Seko to Augusto Pinochet, President Suharto to Hosni Mubarak, the Cold War-era when any behaviour was tolerated, and supported, as long as the wielder of power was perceived as being on ‘our side’.
There was no mention of the historic, and continuing, place of the City of London as a facilitator of, and profiter from, corruption on a gargantuan scale, which robbed and continue to rob nations of taxes that might have paid for healthcare and education, but instead deposited billions in British-controlled tax havens.
There was almost no acknowledgement of the continuing legacy of colonialism, of the unmet demands for reparations for past damage and the additional rights they give to the Global South for claims under the COP26 ‘loss and damage’ process, or the continuing impact of policies privileging the ‘rights’ of multinational companies over the nations of the Global South.
The Green peer would, however, have agreed when the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “The best and by far the cheapest form of improved security comes from pre-emptive reconciliation – getting our reconciliation in first.”
None of this is ‘just history’. The legacy of slavery, of discrimination and dispossession, the swingeing damage continuing to be inflicted by mining and fossil fuel firms, exploitative manufacturers and the fast-changing climate for which the Global South bears little responsibility, our continuing to profit from the pumping of arms into a world already awash with them, are impacts that our foreign policy today should be working to combat, in ways that extend far beyond overseas development assistance.
Acknowledging the deep errors and damage of the past would be a first step to finding a new place, an honest, modest, realistic place for a ‘Global Britain’ in this difficult, unstable world in which there are huge pressures and threats from Chinese ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy and Russian sabre-rattling.
It means starting to chart a new course in international relations, one that doesn’t resort to 19th-century style gunboat diplomacy or empty, aggressive bluster, but works respectfully, honestly and with humility to support the people who really are showing the way to a safer, more stable and secure world, from the girls in Afghanistan fighting against all the odds for an education to the NGOs and brave individual campaigners battling for environmental standards against the polluting impacts of multinational miners, speaking out for the champions of indigenous rights and for communities suffering from racial discrimination.
That’s a Green vision for Britain’s place in the world, the kind of place we should be taking as a responsible chair of the G7 and, particularly COP26. We didn’t get the chance to write that on Hansard, this time, but as Green political impact grows around these islands, it is one that we’ll be setting out and championing.
And that it wasn’t heard in the House is just one more reminder of how unrepresentative is our antique, dysfunctional, accidentally accreted constitution, that has produced a current foreign policy that sometimes sounds awfully like that of the century ago when we last saw significant change in Westminster, when women got the vote.