Election Speech on Liberal Democrat Foreign Policy

  • Liberal Democrats are internationalists. This is at the heart of who we are as a party, it flows through everything we do.

  • Watford Football Club

    Chuka Umunna MP

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Thank you for joining us this morning.

Next Wednesday, NATO heads of state and government will gather not far from here to mark the 70 anniversary of the organisation. Founded in 1949 this inter-governmental military alliance of 29 European countries and the U.S. has sought to safeguard the freedom and security of its members.

It has been one of the lynchpins of the liberal international rule-based order established in the wake of the Second World War to spread liberal democracy across the globe and guard against authoritarianism and oppression.

The UK was instrumental in establishing this order and NATO itself. It was Winston Churchill who signed the Atlantic Charter of 1941 on behalf of the UK which set out the framework for this order, its aims and values. Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin played pivotal roles in founding of NATO. We should be proud of this.

Other institutions which facilitate the multilateralism which is essential to maintaining this order include the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, the World Bank and, of course, the European Union.

So this a fitting moment to say something about what the Liberal Democrats’ approach would be in the next Parliament to the liberal international rule-based order, NATO and UK foreign policy.

Because UK voters have a choice to make at this election:

Give a majority to Boris Johnson, a man determined to take us out of the EU, who has chosen to align with right wing, authoritarian, nationalist forces who are opposed to the liberal international rule-based order;

Or elect as many Liberal Democrat MPs as possible, necessary to deprive Johnson of a majority and ensure the arithmetic in a new House of Commons can deliver a People’s Vote, and pave the way to secure not only Britain’s place at the heart of Europe but as a world leader too.

The situation is pressing and urgent – we have just 17 days to do it.


Let me start by underlining our commitment to NATO, which has been a cornerstone of the defence of our country.

Alongside our fellow NATO ally, France, we are the most capable military power. Our intelligence gathering capacity remains indispensable. Our membership of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership makes us a global leader in the fight against terrorism. And in NATO Britain holds the position of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Long may that continue.

But NATO must reform and adapt to the changing nature of threats we face. For example, we need to increase NATO’s conventional deterrent and help develop the application of Artificial Intelligence. Cybersecurity is afterall now a tier 1 threat and Britain has a key role to play in the integration of internal security and external defence to meet the new challenges of hybrid warfare. Above all, we must provide credible deterrents that convince others that NATO is committed to Europe’s collective defence.

This is why Liberal Democrats will ensure the UK upholds our NATO responsibilities, including by spending 2% of GDP on defence. Under Liberal Democrats in government, this 2% will be worth £993 million more in 2024-25 than under a Tory government because, using the Remain Bonus, we will enhance the UK’s ability to play our part in NATO and maintain our security. In so doing, we will ensure the men and women in our armed forces have the support and resources they need to do their jobs.

However, it is alarming that other NATO members’ commitment to the alliance is less than fulsome. US President Trump described NATO as “obsolete” during his 2016 Presidential campaign. President Macron quite rightly cited Trump’s failure to consult NATO allies, before his abrupt decision to pull forces out of northern Syrian, as evidence of the US’s waning commitment to the alliance. This, in turn, paved the way for Turkey – another NATO member – to start an offensive into Syria to create what it called a security zone along its border. Consequently, out of some exasperation, President Macron described NATO as “brain dead” and warned European countries that we can no longer rely on America to defend NATO allies.

No one is more happy to see this state of affairs than President Putin of Russia, an active opponent of NATO which suspended contact with his government over the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Of course, President Putin, President Erdogan of Turkey and Trump not only share a poor regard for NATO, they share a politics: right wing, conservative, nationalist and authoritarian.


It is Trump, perhaps more than any other, who has taken this politics mainstream in the Western World. In his words and deeds he has been unafraid to engage in bigoted, racist, sexist, and Islamophobic behaviour, to lie and to break the law. All the same criticisms apply to the UK’s Prime Minister who is following the Trump playbook and has become part of this global network of populist, right wing, authoritarian nationalists.

I do not need to repeat the various offensive things the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said about different groups in our society. His capacity to lie – even to our Queen – is there for all to see. He unlawfully sought to shut down our legislature. He refuses to publish a parliamentary intelligence and security committee report into Russian interference into our democracy, in spite of the fact a former Conservative Attorney General chairs the committee, a former head of MI5, the former National Security Advisor and a former head of the Civil Service, all say it should be published. What does he have to hide? Why is he hiding this report from the British public? It is all very Trumpian.

We know that before his election Johnson was regularly in touch with and took advice from Steve Bannon, the man who was instrumental in seeing Trump and his unedifying brand politics into the White House.

On Johnson taking office, Trump lauded him as “Britain Trump”. Indeed, it was Trump who gave the order that the UK’s Conservative and Brexit parties should form an electoral pact. Nigel Farage obliged and so it has come to pass, with Farage claiming yesterday that the 2019 Tory manifesto is a copy of UKIP’s 2015 offer.

Giving Johnson a majority would be to give carte blanche to this type of politics in the UK – something which should worry us all and should strongly be resisted. As British patriots, we must defend our liberal, internationalist, progressive values – British values – in the face of this politics of hate and division.

Of course, our partnership with the US – our closest ally – is bigger than one man and will endure in spite of Trump. It is a partnership that has defined the West’s foreign policy, forged in two world wars, the Cold War and more recently in the fight against Islamic extremism.

It is often described as “special”. The truth is the relationship is neither special, nor is it sentimental. But it is based on hard-headed national interests.

Our mutual sharing of intelligence and the interoperability of our nuclear submarine forces makes it more than just a transaction. Our army, navy and air force are designed to fight alongside the US in a supporting role. The relationship gives us security, and it amplifies our capabilities across the world. We are very much committed to it for that reason.

Yet Britain cannot settle for just being a useful component of US foreign and defence policy. As Attlee remarked to Bevin in a Cabinet meeting discussing the nuclear deterrent, ‘We ought not to give the Americans the impression that we cannot get on without them; for we can and, if necessary, will do so.’ In this, our EU membership has been key. We have not only acted as a bridge between the EU and the US, but our membership of the EU has acted as a useful counterweight in our relationship with the U.S.

This delicate balance is under threat. Not only will we cease to be that important bridge between the EU and the US but, by withdrawing from the EU, inevitably Johnson will become more reliant on Trump in the short term if he is re-elected. Johnson is desperate to

secure a US trade deal to make up for the damage done to our global standing if Brexit happens. From my own contact with the US Government, it is clear a high price will be demanded and close alignment with US rules and regulation demanded – so we risk becoming a vassal state of the U.S. if Boris Johnson gets a majority. Leave the EU and the UK under Johnson will become President Trump’s poodle. This is what is at stake at this election.


It underlines the importance of stopping Brexit from happening in 17 days time.

Since the end of the Second World War the UK has been at the heart of the European project. It was Winston Churchill who called for a united Europe, declaring that the continent could not afford to drag forward the hatred and revenge from injuries of the past, and that the first step must be to recreate the ‘European family’ of justice, mercy and freedom.

While he may wish to portray himself as a Churchillian figure, Boris Johnson does a disservice to our country’s great war-time leader by claiming Churchill’s mantle for his own nationalist, isolationist agenda.

Seventy years later and our continent, once scarred by conflict and bloodshed, has healed.

The EU continues to be essential for peace, security, and cooperation in our part of the global neighbourhood. And the UK’s economic, political and security interests dictate that we continue to be a member of the European Union.

We share the same values, we have common interests, and can achieve more together than we can alone in a global economy that does not recognise borders. I simply do not understand how any political activist in our country can be “neutral” on this. And I am proud to be led by a leader who is resolute: our country is stronger, safer and better off in the EU.

This is an emergency. Things will move very quickly after polling day. The December EU Council summit starts on polling day and the election results will come through whilst it is still meeting. Whoever wins, may well head straight to that summit. And the clock will be ticking down towards the current scheduled date of departure, 31st January 2020. Once you discount the Christmas break, exit day will be due just over a month after polling day.

So two things can happen after polling day:

Sufficient numbers of MPs are elected to pass the necessary motions and legislative measures to provide for a People’s Vote in the Spring of 2020, for which the EU will grant a further extension. As the last parliament illustrated, what matters is the parliamentary arithmetic, not the wishes of any minority government. Every Liberal Democrat MP and the full weight of our party will be thrown behind Remain in that scenario.

Or, Boris Johnson is given a majority, allowing him to more or less blank cheque to do exactly as he pleases. He has said he will seek to bring his Withdrawal Agreement Bill back to the Commons before Christmas, leaving little time for further scrutiny of it by the new parliament. He is clear: he will see to it that we walk away from the club which we entered being dubbed as the sick man of Europe but would leave as the world’s fifth largest economy, in no small part due to our membership of it.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak let the cat out of the bag over the weekend as to what would happen next when he disclosed that, regardless of whether the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement passes, if re-elected the Tories will continue to plan for “no deal”. That makes sense because it is the course they are embarked upon. They say they have an “oven ready” trade deal but it is not even half baked. It will be impossible to conclude this free trade agreement – which is Canadian in flavour – with the EU by the end of December 2020. The Prime Minister has said he will not extend the implementation period beyond 2020 so, in all probability, the UK will be trading on “no deal”, WTO terms with the EU from 2021 under the Tories, with all the damage and fallout for our country which that will entail.

In order to stop this calamity and for the numbers to add up to stop Brexit in a new House of Commons, at the very least we must reduce the numbers of Conservative MPs – all of their candidates have signed a pledge in this election to deliver this hardest of hard Brexits. Here the Liberal Democrats have a vital and decisive role to play because only we can take seats from the Tories in significant numbers.

As Sir John Curtice has said, given current polling, in a substantial number of seats we are now likely to be the stronger challenger to the Conservatives. This is borne out by current in-seat polling. Over the last two weekends, The Observer has carried out seat polls in a number of constituencies that usually vote Tory, which show the Lib Dems in second place with us poised to be beat the Tories particularly if Remainers vote tactically.

Conversely, the Labour party would lose in all of them. Far from taking seats from Johnson, Labour is trying to defend its own from the Tories, particularly in the West Midlands, North East and Yorkshire. For the betting folks out there, Ladbrokes does not have Labour as favourites to win in any Tory-held seat – but it does with the Lib Dems. This highlights the crucial role voters have in Tory/LibDem marginals in the coming weeks – stopping Brexit and stopping Boris Johnson’s extreme Brexit is the prize.


And the UK deciding to remain in the EU will not only be a boost to the UK and the EU, but it will provide a much needed injection of oxygen into the liberal rule-based international order itself, which is under threat.

I’ve already mentioned Trump, Putin and Erdogan’s disregard for it. In China, we see in Hong Kong human rights abuses, democracy and the rule of law under attack. In Kashmir, the abolition of the region’s special status by the Indian government is a cause of alarm.

Across the world, nationalist populism – the pernicious mantra that one people is superior to another – is making strides. Matteo Salvini and his Northern League dominate Italian politics. Viktor Orban has distorted public life in Hungary to monopolize power there. President Jair Bolsonaro is undermining democracy in Brazil. The list goes on.

The order is imperfect. Yes, 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 none the less created peace and prosperity.

It helped transform states which had been aggressive autocracies – Germany and Japan – into liberal democracies.

The trade it has opened up between countries has helped ensure global competition no longer results in military conflict. In turn, this has helped lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and people are more healthy than before.

Furthermore, the liberal democracies that fall within the order have, in the main, also provided better protection of the rights and civil liberties of their peoples.

And Extreme nationalism was forced to retreat.

NATO and the EU – as key parts of the order’s architecture – have been instrumental in all of this.

Going forward, the great challenges of the twenty-first century are global – the climate emergency; human trafficking; the illegal arms trade; global poverty and inequality. I do not see how we tackle them if not through this order.

Re-electing a government that aligns itself with the forces ranged against the liberal rule-based order, forces which undermine NATO, cannot be the answer. Giving free reign to a government which seeks to separate our country from the EU and so diminish Britain’s capacity to cooperate with our closest neighbours in response to these threats, will be a huge backward step.

We offer a different course. Liberal Democrats are internationalists. This is at the heart of who we are as a party, it flows through everything we do.

To finish where I started: under that 1941 Charter which Chruchill signed, all countries would have the right to self-determination. All people the right to freedom of speech, of expression, of religion, and freedom from want and fear. The rule of law would be promoted. All nations would collaborate to ‘improve labour standards, economic advancement, and social security’ for all. If you vote for the Liberal Democrats at this election, that is precisely what we will work to make happen.

Thank you.