Protecting the liberal international rule-based order from populist threats

  • Under Jo Swinson's premiership we can breathe a progressive breath of fresh air into British foreign policy, revive our reputation on the world stage, and get on with helping to improve the lives of those across the world

  • Chuka Umunna MP

This morning I spoke at my first Liberal Democrats Conference, and set out how our party is demanding better on foreign affairs. 

At the heart of our offer to voters across the UK are our values. I am a social democrat with liberal values. To be a Remainer is not only to be an advocate of our continued membership of the European Union; it is to hold a set of liberal, internationalist values of which we Liberal Democrats are the champions and defenders of in Britain.

As the Liberal Democrat constitution says, our party exists to build and defend a fair, free and open society, a society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. 

The society we seek to build is one where if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be free to lead a happy, prosperous and secure life free of domination of either the state or the market. The Liberal Democrats want to ensure future generations can do the same by preserving our planet for the long term continuity of life in all its forms.

For the Liberal Democrats, it is our job to make sure this country’s heart beats in a liberal and internationalist direction; not nationalist, populist authoritarianism. This is the new fault line in British politics and we know where we stand. We recognise that these things cannot be achieved in isolation and that the pursuit of individual and social justice does not stop at the border, we seek to work together with other liberal democracies who share our values to overcome cross border obstacles to achieving our goals.

That is why we are internationalists. That is why we are pro-European. Liberalism is needed at home to protect personal freedom and liberty; liberalism and cooperation are also needed abroad to secure peace, promote democracy and defend human rights. If the Liberal Democrats are elected to government at the next election, we will fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur, and we will seek to promote the free movement of ideas, people, goods and services.

We support the liberal international rule-based order established in the wake of the Second World War which has underpinned liberal democracy across the globe and guarded against authoritarianism and oppression. The Atlantic Charter of 1941, of which the UK was a signatory, set out the framework for this order, its aims and values. Under the charter, all countries would have the right to self-determination. All people would have the right to freedom of speech, of expression, of religion, and freedom from want and fear. The rule of law was promoted.

It led to the international institutions which would facilitate the multilateralism which is essential to maintaining this rules based order today: the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation; the IMF and the World Bank; and, of course, Nato to defend our democracies. In fact, it was in the 1940s when the Liberals were the first UK political party to vote in favour of a European Union.

Of course, the first thing we will do in government is revoke Article 50 so that, once again, the British people can resume their role of providing leadership as a full and active member of the European Union.

This rules-based order is imperfect. It must do far better at reducing inequality and fostering a more inclusive global economic system. But however flawed it may be, this liberal international order has nevertheless created peace and prosperity.  

But across the world, nationalist populism is making strides. Matteo Salvini and his Northern League dominate Italian politics. Viktor Orban has distorted public life in Hungary to monopolise power there. President Erdogan and President Jair Bolsonaro are undermining democracy in Turkey and Brazil respectively. A giant battle is raging globally, between the pluralist, progressive creed of liberal democracy on the one hand and a desiccated authoritarianism on the other. 

But you cannot defend a liberal, rules based order abroad if you so openly flout the rules at home. Boris Johnson seeks to force through a catastrophic no-deal Brexit by shutting down parliament and is threatening to break the law if necessary. And, as he seeks to force the UK out of the EU, he will become ever reliant on President Trump, whose political playbook he follows. But President Trump has always been clear – it will be America, not Britain First.

Meanwhile the Labour Party likes to think of itself as a champion of liberal values at home and abroad. Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin played pivotal roles in the founding of Nato but this is not the party of Attlee and Bevin; this is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. You cannot be a champion of liberalism if you are currently subject to a formal investigation by the Equality & Human Rights Commission for institutional racism against Jewish people. You cannot be a champion of liberalism when your leader’s supporters think it is acceptable to abuse, vilify and deselect anyone who dares to question the leader. And you cannot claim to be liberal when the political editor of the BBC needs to take a bodyguard to your conference.

And then you look at Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions. Acting as an apologist for a hard right Russian government that thinks it can poison people on British soil, lauding authoritarian regimes in Venezuela and Iran, failing to support the prescription of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. Attlee and Bevin helped found Nato – Jeremy Corbyn and those around him want to abolish it. 

What unites both Johnson and Corbyn is the fact that they want to leave the EU, the organisation which has been the biggest champion of liberalism in our part of the global neighbourhood. Neither is fit to lead this country.  

It’s time for a change and someone who I know can provide that leadership: Jo Swinson. Under Jo’s premiership we can breathe a progressive breath of fresh air into British foreign policy, revive our reputation on the world stage, and get on with helping to improve the lives of those across the world.

Liberal Democrats are internationalists. This is at the heart of who we are as a party, it flows through everything we do. We believe in tearing down walls, not building them. We believe in working together through multilateral organisations, not standing alone. We believe that to tackle the biggest issues facing us today, from the climate emergency to terrorism, we need to ensure that the UK is at the table, achieving consensus internationally.  

Perhaps now more than ever, UK foreign policy is yearning for clear liberal, democratic values. A Liberal Democrat government would not be tied to outdated tropes or biases, but would be clear that the UK must continue to work with allies from across the world, playing a leading role in the EU and other international institutions. 

Liberal Democrats have a duty to do this, to defend the values of human rights, democracy, and equality. As the Liberal Democrat shadow foreign secretary, I will stand up for a truly global Britain.