29 May Tom Tugendhat’s Speech at RUSI: Just a Boris Bromance or a Real Call for Change?
Headlines ahead of Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Tom Tugendhat’s RUSI speech today trailed it as a controversial endorsement for Boris Johnson after months of talk of rivalry between two very different foreign policy styles. Yet although there was a nod to that gossip when he quipped ‘’We need to do something you might not expect me to say. We need to give Boris Johnson more power”, there was a far more substantive concern underlying that call. Tom Tugendhat was adding to growing warnings that the UK is entering uncharted and increasingly dangerous international waters without sufficient strategic investment, coordination or direction in our foreign policy. Not only that; but the frustration was palpable in his reminder that the UK has the tools to be a significant and positive global actor in its own and global interests. Tom referred to the UK’s globally recognised world class national assets when it comes to our insight, influence, trade, alliances and force – the ‘five fingers of a foreign policy – a hand of friendship which can if necessary be clenched into a fist’. Yet to truly draw on those assets there needs to be nothing short of a ‘revolution’ at the heart of government, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) made the ‘strategic engine of our foreign policy’. This in turn requires a bringing together of all the international functions of government under the Foreign Secretary and coordinated by the FCO (though on defence he was tellingly ambiguous).
Tom Tugendhat is undeniably one of the most innovative thinkers in Parliament on foreign policy issues. But critics who say this is part of Tom Tugendhat’s campaign to be Foreign Secretary will inevitably accuse him of Empire building even before he has become Emperor. The call in particular to bring foreign aid under the purview of the FCO will be red rag to the highly influential international development advocacy lobby. They claim to be backed by public opinion in asserting aid is at its most effective when aimed purely at poverty alleviation, and it is undermined when used for wider UK advantage. His ideas for using Common Law as a ‘soft power’ tool of foreign policy may provoke similar concerns in the legal world.
Yet the need for a fundamental rethink of how and who delivers our foreign policy is a theme that is at the core of the work of the British Foreign Policy Group. Tom’s calls for a more strategic approach echoes previous BFPG reports, including a report he helped launch in Parliament last week arguing for greater investment in all the government departments delivering the ‘five fingers of foreign policy’ he refers to, as well as the “Rising Power” report published in November 2017, which makes the case for a foreign policy strategy that integrates trade, defence, and diplomacy.
One aspect that he only touched on is captured in his statement that foreign policy must start ‘…at home. Because a foreign policy that works for the British people is one that builds on their values and promotes their interests’. Here he is absolutely right. The BFPG has hosted events around the UK asking people from local and regional business, government, educational and other professional backgrounds what they want from our foreign policy. Tom would be heartened by the themes, which largely echo his own around values, practical delivery and ambition. But what he doesn’t mention is the frustration that these concerns seem largely ignored by a metropolitan London elite looking out for its own concerns at the expense of Britain beyond the M25. Whether this perception is true misses the point of the real visceral resentment it kicks up, resentment that undermines not only our foreign policy, but our national solidarity at a time, as Tom points out, that we need it more than we have done for many years. To his credit he has offered to engage with audiences around the UK, and the Foreign Affairs Committee which he Chairs has begun to host sessions outside London. So perhaps for his next speech we can encourage him, and other influential foreign policy voices, to swap the policy world of the London thinktank scene for an audience in Cardiff, Glasgow or Manchester. Watch this space, for we may be seeing the birth of a quiet revolution in how the UK engages with itself, and with the world.