To what extent and for what reasons did New Labour succeed in introducing a new and distinctive set of values to the conduct of Britain’s external relations between 1997 and 2010?
As John Rentoul has observed in his biography of Tony Blair, “Prime Ministers always run their own foreign policy” (Rentoul, 2001: 420). This was certainly true of Tony Blair and New Labour. That itself is a reason why Britain’s external relations in the shape of New Labour’s foreign policy can only be properly understood by reference to the foreign policy philosophy espoused by Blair and his response to world events during his leadership over three terms in office. In New Labour’s third term (2005-10) the interventionist policy that dominated the previous two terms qwas an important hangover even to Gordon Brown’s premiership, although, ultimately Brown’s period as leader was dominated by the global finical crisis.
On the eve of the Labour party’s 1997 election victory John Major’s Conservative government had little credibility with the Clinton administration in Washington or with European governments (Wallace, 2005: 54). This was a position that the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair wanted to address. At the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on 10 November 1997 Blair set out five guiding lights on Europe including being a leading partner in Europe. He postulated that the single currency would be “good for the EU” (Lord Mayors Banquet, 1997). For Blair, British foreign policy should aim to be “strong in Europe and strong with the US…” and that Britain was “the bridge between the US and Europe” (Lord Mayors Banquet, 1997).
At the same venue, on 22 November 1999, Blair implicitly invoked Winston Churchill’s “three circles” doctrine that conjured up Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth, the special relationship with the United States and the European dimension. According to Churchill Britain was the pivot around whom these relationships were to exist. Blair, accepting that the British Commonwealth was a “lost” Empire argued that Britain’s role was that of a pivotal power, as a power that was at “the crux of the alliances and international politics which shape the world and its future” (Lord Mayors Banquet, 1997).
The intention in this essay is to focus on certain fundamental aspects of New Labour foreign policy that impacted on British relationships with Europe and the World at large. The primary focus will be on the so-called “Blair Effect” simply because, as Prime Minister, he was pivotal to the New Labour philosophy.
As Anne Deighton has observed both the Labour and Conservative parties at various times have suffered internal dissension over the European Union (EU) (Deighton, 2007: 307). The focus of the Labour 1997 general election campaign on Europe was one where the Labour manifesto promised to “give Britain the leadership in Europe which Britain and Europe need” (Labour-party, 1997). It was important for the Labour party to highlight its commitment to Europe, in contrast to the tensions within the Conservative party. Europe apart, however, the 1997 election campaign did not highlight significant differences between the Labour and Conservative parties. There was an expectation that there would be “considerable continuity” in foreign affairs in the event of a change of government (Wickham-Jones, 2000: 8).
Subsequently, in the course of New Labour’s first term in office Blair made regular pronouncements about Britain’s role in Europe. There was action as well as rhetoric. Shortly after taking office Britain ended its opt-out from the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty and signed up to the increased EU powers enshrined in the Amsterdam Treaty. British presidency of the EU provided a ready platform for Britain to pursue an enlargement agenda. The St Malo summit in December 1998 provided Blair with a platform to collaborate with President Jacques Chirac of France to promote an Anglo-French initiative on European defence (fco.gov, 1998).
This European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) has been described as part of “arguably the most pro-active upstream period of the Labour government’s utilitarian supranationalism” (Bulmer, 2008: 602). Notwithstanding Blair’s pivotal role in the creation of the ESDP, it has been argued that, in comparison to Conservative policy on European Security and Defence, the Blair approach was less a seismic shift in British policy, and more of a change of strategy” (Dryburgh, 2010: 271). The essential change, in comparison to the Conservative party approach was one where Blair was prepared to adopt a leadership role in contrast to the former John Major government’s focus of diverting attention away from EU initiatives, and in the case of defence, a focus on the strengthening of NATO (Dryburgh, 2010: 267-268).
The relationship between Blair and Gordon Brown was also relevant to the New Labour approach to Europe. On 27 October 1997 Gordon Brown announced the government’s policy on the Euro. This consisted on a three pronged policy that supported (a) a successful single currency, (b) that was constitutionally acceptable but (c) had to satisfy five economic tests (hm-treasury, 2008). This approach was allied to a commitment to hold a referendum on membership of the Euro. The “key determinant” (Bulmer, 2008: 601) of this policy was the economic tests that included whether joining the Euro would be good for employment. In the event, during Labour’s second term, on 9 June 2003 Gordon Brown announced that only one test was met – that relating to a beneficial impact on UK financial services – a result that removed joining the Euro from the political agenda and, in a real sense, reduced New Labour’s pronouncements on the Euro as posturing and meaningless rhetoric.
The reality of New Labour’s European strategy was not to alienate the support base that ultimately mattered – the British electorate. The UK was a Euro-sceptic member state of the EU and a UK government’s EU policy could not put at risk a parliamentary majority. The decoupling of the single currency allied to the promise of a referendum in that first term became a legacy of New Labour that has now achieved a degree of permanence that has survived through and beyond the 2010 election.
The Blair and New Labour momentum on Europe stalled after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. The focus on the war on terror and the transatlantic alliance that was nurtured by the 9/11 attacks became an all encompassing distraction with the result that “Europe has been a central failure of his (Blair’s) premiership” (Riddell, 2005: 383).
Ethical foreign policy
On 12 May 1997 the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared that “…foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other people for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves” (Rentoul, 2001: 421). Cook denied ever using the phrase “ethical foreign policy” or that there would be an ethical foreign policy (Wickam-Jones, 2000: 29). What is undeniable is that New Labour, through Cook, viewed human rights as a central plank of foreign policy because human rights were rights “we claim for ourselves and which we therefore have a duty to defend for those who do not get to enjoy them” (Wickham-Jones, 2000: 11).
This ethical dimension served to identify “clear blue water” between New Labour’s foreign policy and previous administrations, including previous Labour governments (Little, 2000: 4). Furthermore, although the concept of an “ethical dimension” was articulated by Cook, it chimed with Blair’s “third way” in the sense that globalisation demanded an approach to the modern world that was “qualitatively different from the past” (Williams, 2010: 54).
The “ethical dimension,” however, was converted by media sources into an “ethical foreign policy” and served to create the sense that New Labour “were introducing ethics to a sphere of government that was previously devoid of ethical commitments” (Williams, 2010:57). Such a lofty ambition was impossible to achieve in the real political world. This philosophy created a platform on which criticism could be levelled to contrast the reality with the aspiration, for example, in connection with the arms trade where New Labour continued a policy that was a “highly permissive approach to exports” (Cooper, 2001: 73). The ethical dimension strategy became a “millstone” (Williams, 2010: 61) around the Foreign Secretary’s neck. It is worthy of note that the New Labour manifesto for the 2001 general election with its foreign policy focus on “Britain strong in the world” (REF) was designed to herald a change in focus.
Kosovo and beyond.
Blair’s Chicago speech (number-10.gov, 1999) on 22 April 1999 was an important landmark in New Labour’s external relationships. It represented a key moment in “the history of liberal interventionist discourse…” (Daddow, 2009: 549). Active involvement in other people’s conflicts was justified if five considerations were satisfied, including exhausting all diplomatic options and being sure of the case for intervention. This interventionist approach relied on the notion that there was a moral dimension to international action that did not depend on the norms of international law. The backdrop to the speech was what Blair described as “a just war” in Kosovo that was “based not on any territorial ambitions but on values.”
Blair’s vision of success whereby an international force would enter Kosvo and allow refugees to return to their homes was ultimately realised. His strident crusade to provoke NATO and the US President Clinton into action was seen as a triumph that “earned him great respect with so many of the world leaders” (Rentoul, 2001).
Following the September 11 attacks Blair reinforced his interventionist stance at the Labour Party Conference (2001) by declaring that, along with the United States, Britain had a “duty” to protect the rights of citizens of other states, including those of the Afghan people. On this approach, the carpet-bombing of Afghanistan could be claimed to be “an action undertaken on behalf of Afghan citizens” (Chandler, 2003: 307). What this policy omits is any real engagement with the Afghan people themselves and, at its crudest, becomes a recipe for innocent collateral loss of life.
Iraq became the yardstick against which New Labour’s foreign policy particularly during its second term and the Blair legacy has come to be judged. Iraq was inextricably tied in with the so-called special relationship between Britain and the US and the humanitarian interventionist policy. The special relationship was not new and even today the special relationship has a “political and ideological superstructure and an embedded military and intelligence structure” (Wallace, 2009: 263). Yet under Blair there was unconditional support for the Bush administration’s desire to invade Iraq. Although the so-called “Poodle Theory” might be “simplistic and at best, overstated” (Azubuike, 2005: 137)
Blair was prepared to join Bush in pursuing a disastrous and illegal campaign (Azubuike, 2005: 137). Robin Cook perhaps best summarised the flaw in Blair’s approach – in explaining that by becoming a “trusty partner of the most reactionary US Administration in modern time” such an “unlikely alliance” would cause disruption in his own party (Cook, 2003: 2). The New Labour interventionist approach to conflict justified by humanitarian concerns that had proved successful in the past left a legacy that “turned to ashes” the Blair/New Labour vision of Britain that visualised “spreading good around the world” (Toynbee and Walker, 2005: p194).
Gordon Brown as Prime Minister had to maintain the line that Blair’s foreign policy initiatives were justified because, as a central figure in New Labour he could not detach himself from the major foreign policy goals pursued by New Labour and Blair. Iraq and Afghanistan required to be managed.
The blueprint for New Labour external relations with a focus on leadership in Europe and an ethical dimension to world events in New Labour’s first term promised much, but by the third term was transformed into one where Europe became an intractable problem clouded by immigration and euro-scepticism. Furthermore, in Europe the New Labour policy of stringent economic tests became an agenda for non-entry to the euro.
The New Labour policy of interventionism overlooked the fundamental truth that when it really mattered in Iraq and Afghanistan winning the war in a military sense became irrelevant if peace could not be secured thereafter. A humanitarian agenda without a secure peace becomes an agenda that lacks real morality. New Labour began with a positive external relations agenda that promised much but ultimately failed to deliver.
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