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EXCLUSIVE: British Foreign Policy, a conversation with Tom Tugendhat MP

EXCLUSIVE: British Foreign Policy, a conversation with Tom Tugendhat MP

Lord Powell said in a recent interview with Channel 4 News, “Government is Dead”. As Foreign Policy advisor to Mrs Thatcher he presided over a part of the proliferation of policy ideas which her governments introduced into British politics. He is, therefore, well placed to make that analysis. Today, the system of government that we refer to as ‘Parliamentary Democracy’, through which policy ideas become legislation, has been stymied by a host of complex factors that can ultimately be traced back to the electorate. Why? Because the fount of all legitimate government comes from the people. So we must take responsibility for our democratic choices. Yet at the same time the trust that we have placed in this system, which has survived in its current form since 1832, is now being threatened with complete disfiguration as we hurtle towards a colossal showdown between Boris Johnson’s Government and the elected Parliament. In foreign policy terms; British interests, military infrastructure, and British citizens are being threatened by volatile states around the world. Opportunities are being squandered, prosperity is not being maximised, and there is quite simply an apodictic lack of optimism in the current British spirit. Things are looking bleak. 

It is in this context that I went to see Tom Tugendhat the Member of Parliament for Tonbridge and Malling and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, in his office in the House of Commons. It was following his experience in the Armed Forces that I first wanted to probe in order to uncover his perspective on the current state of British Politics. I therefore asked him whether he felt that British politics today was the reification of Claus von Clausewitz’s aphorism that “politics is the continuation of war”. 

“No” he replied. “I think having spent many years in wars around the world politics is different. That there are certain similarities and one of those similarities is the need to know what you’re fighting for.” 

A noble value no doubt, but this comment clearly belies a stinging criticism of those in politics  who “forget the purpose” which he articulated as being to the benefit of “the people” and “the community”. The people and the community are fundamental components of Tom Tugendhat’s personal political philosophy.  I wondered whether this might have sprung from his experience as a soldier and diplomat in Afghanistan where he helped to set up the National Security Council. Perhaps helping to rebuild a civilisation puts fundamental ideological problems of the day into a more focused perspective. “Yes” he replied;

Politics is about people. It’s not about grand ideas and ideologies, it’s about people and about trying to make sure that people have what they need in life [to be] able to cope with the situations that are thrown at them”.

Clearly, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom are two vastly different countries with incomparable  political, economic and social contexts. In Afghanistan the provision of, “roads, running water and schools were immediate priorities” whereas in the United Kingdom, “it’s things like healthcare and social security when people try things and fail.” But what unites these two points underlines Tom’s political philosophy. That politics is about people. Which can often seem like a fatuous political slogan often used to question the basis of democratic legitimacy. But Tom’s view is grounded, genuine, and borne out of military experience which so often exposes humanity in all its naked vulnerability. Therefore, placing the correct infrastructures in place, both physical and psychological to help people help themselves to get on in life should be the primary function of government.

It was useful to establish in such clear and explicit terms the angle from which Tom approached politics as his day job. I now wanted to focus on Foreign Policy and his role as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the duration of the interview. 

In preparation for the interview I had read as many Foreign Policy Reports and Parliamentary Research Briefings as I could find. These included the Lord’s International Relations Committee Report entitled ‘UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order’, ‘The UK’s Relationship with the Pacific Alliance, and The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Report, ‘Building Bridges: Reawakening UK-India Ties.’ The general conclusion from these was straightforward. There has been a lacklustre approach to obvious foreign policy opportunities. In the Report on India for example repeated phrase was, “missed opportunities”. I asked Tom why Britain was not taking advantage of opportunities so obviously to her advantage.

“I think there is an extraordinary opportunity for Britain to engage globally. It’s something that we’re not currently doing and finding a way to make sure that we do is essential if we are to make sure that we come through this [Brexit]. Whether you are a supporter or not of Brexit it doesn’t really matter. The truth is Britain has got a unique opportunity to redefine its strategic relationship with the world now and if we don’t take it we will suffer”.

I probed further using the words of Sir Simon Fraser (Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office 2010-2015) to highlight this point. Sir Simon has said that he, “could not think of a time when there has been less clarity about the purposes and objectives of British Foreign Policy”. 

Tom’s response was vague,

 “I think the key is to make sure that we get some clarity about British Foreign Policy and at the moment there are several reasons to hope that we might but there are no guarantees”.  

I decided to move the questioning onto the role of the committee of which he is Chairman. I wanted to know whether the Foreign Affairs Committee was doing anything to fill the void of foreign policy ideas which might be proposed to the government as potential policy initiatives. Tom went on to clarify the role of his committee. 

“We simply don’t have the capacity to formulate foreign policy. The foreign office is an entire department and we have fewer than half a dozen people, so we don’t run embassies, we don’t run networks and we don’t have a fully informed DipTel (diplomatic telegrams) network. What we try and do is to try and support the interests of the British people by holding the foreign office to account over the decisions that it makes.”

“The interests of the British People”. My heart sank. It was clear that as much I wanted to engage in policy discussion, the "game of politics” always haunts a Member of Parliament like a whip carrying spectre, and I realised that I was not going to get much out of this line of questioning. So I changed tack, to greater success. I went on to ask more specifically how the committee tries to bring the  ideas of foreign policy to the wider attention of the British public.

“We try to do it by taking committee members on road trips out and about and recently we’ve been to places like Rhonda, Belfast, Southampton. And we’ve done it because what we’re trying to do is to understand what people want from foreign policy because foreign policy, like all policy, is not a Westminster sport, it's about people.”

There it was again. But this time I realised that any politician with an interest in foreign policy is tasked with balancing two core principles. The wider and more general foreign policy objectives alongside its direct impact on society and people. Given that we had discussed at some length foreign policy and ‘the people’ I thought it might be helpful to try to define, from Tom’s perspective, what Britain’s wider role might be in a future relationship with the world.

“I think that one of the fundamental things that the UK is always trying to achieve is the defence of liberty around the world. I think it's absolutely fundamental. The underpinnings of the wealth of the British people is free trade, free association and civil rights”.

But how far are these freedoms threatened around the world?

“They’re always threatened […] the important thing for us is to make sure that we work with others to make sure that situation we helped build in the post war world are defended, expanded and not threatened. Thats why the report on India was so important because India’s place 70 years ago was as a small economy emerging from colonial occupation and with a series of views that went with that including a reticence to have a voice in the world and one of the reasons for that report was as a challenge to the UK government”. 

I was getting closer to a clearer perspective on the future of British Foreign Policy in specific terms with defined objectives. However, I couldn’t ignore Brexit and was curious about whether membership of the EU helped the UK in its ‘Global Britain’ strategy which provided so much optimism for the Leave Campaign in 2016. As a corollary I wanted to know where he saw the Commonwealth fitting into that future relationship. 

“I happen to believe that if there’s a table then Britain should sit at it. I think thats what great powers should do, I think they should play their part in any organisation that shapes the rules and shapes the world. So I think there are opportunities … but it is what it is. I think the challenge now is to make sure that Britains pivotal role in many organisations is multiplied and amplified by our diplomatic network.”

[and…] “the commonwealth is one of the  few organisations in the world whose only demand on its members is not trade, or tariffs, or whatever, its only demand is that you are a democracy. I happen to think that democracy, freedom of people, freedom of association and of expression are the building blocks of prosperity and so I thats a very sensible way of doing it”.

So where does Britain stand now in the grand scheme of things? Britain has an opportunity to adapt to the new realities of global foreign affairs. The rise of India, Russia, China, and the Pacific alliance provide new channels of engagement with the world as well as opportunities to promote democracy and liberty on a global scale not seen since the height of the British Empire. The problem is that we’re not taking the opportunity presented to us. What it will require is strong national leadership, a clear sense of national purpose, and a reaffirmed commitment to the international rules based order. In my discussion with Tom Tugendhat, I detected a degree of optimism. These principles are not dead, they are dormant. It is clear what future governments need to do, and it is up to the next Prime Minister to lead in this effort.

I want to express my sincerest gratitude to Tom Tugendhat MP for allowing me time to conduct this interview.

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