General election manifestos mark the end of British foreign policy consensus

Next month’s election has been variously framed as a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity, or an existential threat, with the future of Brexit, the NHS and our economic model all at stake. For the first time in many decades, so too are each of the three largest parties offering truly distinct foreign policy platforms – meaning Britain could be set to embark on an unchartered pathway in our global affairs.

Now that the Conservatives have joined Labour and the Liberal Democrats in announcing their manifesto, we can not only compare their foreign policy commitments, but also the tone and emphasis they place on the very nature of our role in the world. 

As the incumbent party, the Conservatives would traditionally have been seen to uphold the status quo position, but the as-yet-unresolved nature of Brexit means even their most run-of-the-mill pledges are influenced by their desire to shift the paradigm of Foreign Office thinking away from our European neighbours. Labour, meanwhile, extend their radical vision in domestic policy-making to the world, championing a human rights-led, values-based approach that would represent a true step-change in our global relationships. As ever, the Liberal Democrats fall somewhere in between – denouncing excesses and ideologies on both sides, and positioning themselves as the defenders of the rules-based liberal world order. 

Brexit plays a considerable role in shaping the parties’ unique approaches. The Conservatives are almost at pains to avoid mentioning European cooperation, rather highlighting a wide-ranging suite of other ‘alliances and institutions that help project our influence and keep us safe’, such as the UN Security Council, NATO, the Commonwealth, the Five Eyes, the G7 and the World Trade Organisation. Indeed, they rather bizarrely claim that Britain will be free to champion its values ‘more freely’ once it has left the EU. The British Foreign Policy Group’s surveys on public opinion about foreign policy confirm that the EU is the only multilateral organisation that Conservative voters do not emphatically support.

The Labour Party is typically keeping all options on the table, leaving the door open to close cooperation with Europe, but also wanting the UK to take a more forthright role in global humanitarian issues. The Liberal Democrats, in turn, see Europe as the primary vehicle through which Britain can project power and influence, including on a regional approach to climate change, a European Magnitsky Act, and reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Another reason for the significant divergence between the parties is the differing way in which they conceive of global threats. The Conservatives seek to challenge, ‘terrorism, rogue states and malign non-state actors’, while the Liberal Democrats cite ‘the rising tides of nationalism and isolationism’ as a threat to global peace and prosperity, and Labour condemn the ‘outsourcing of UK foreign policy to US President Donald Trump’ and the ‘bomb first, talk later’ status quo mind-set. 

One of the most prominent areas of consensus comes in the area of defence capabilities and spending, with all parties committed to spending at least two per cent of GDP on defence, as well as boosting funding for veterans’ services and care. The parties’ prioritisation and application of our defence activities, however, fork apart in small but meaningful ways. While all pledge to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats emphasise that this would take place alongside broader efforts to promote nuclear disarmament. It is important to note that the SNP have made clear that the renewal of Trident would be a ‘red line’ for them in any coalition negotiations.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats highlight the challenges of digital warfare and cybersecurity, with the Tories committing to launching the UK’s first Space Command. Distinct from the Labour Party, they also explicitly commit to defending media freedoms as part of the UK’s international engagement activities, and to expanding the soft power potential of the BBC World Service and the British Council.

On hard power, it is clear that the long shadow of the Iraq War continues to hang over parties’ approach to military interventionism. While both the Liberal Democrats and Labour promise to legislate to ensure Parliament is given the opportunity to vote to approve military engagement – the Liberal Democrats also offer an escape clause for executives to act unilaterally during ‘emergencies’. Labour, on the other hand, pledges to implement every recommendation of the Chilcot Inquiry. The Conservatives don’t mention interventionism and ‘boots on the ground’ warfare at all, other than to say that they are investing in expanding our defence capabilities.

Ground zero of the foreign policy debate in this election is likely to centre around the emphasis the Labour Party is placing on holding Britain to account for ‘past wrongs’, which the Conservatives denounce as fundamentally unpatriotic. ‘Unlike those currently leading the Labour Party,’ says their manifesto. ‘We view our country as a force for good’. 

While Britons may be relatively relaxed about issues such as allowing the people of the Chagos Islands and their descendants the right to return, the particular focus Labour’s manifesto makes on atoning for the transgressions of the British Empire may ruffle some feathers. In particular, the party’s promise to undertake an audit of the impact of Britain’s imperial legacy, ‘to understand our contribution’ to present day conflicts and unrest, may reinforce the sense amongst some voters that Jeremy Corbyn does not regard Britain as truly ‘Great’.

Like the Liberal Democrats, Labour also calls for an enquiry into Britain’s ‘complicity’ in rendition and torture; however, there is a clear distinction in the tone. While the Liberal Democrats seek to ‘uphold’ the international rules-based order, the Labour Party pledges to ‘reform’ it, in order to ensure it is more accountable for breaches of human rights and international law. 

This emphasis on challenging long-standing foreign policy conventions will likely flow into Labour’s distinct approach to our international relationships – another area the Conservatives are keen to position as a ‘red flag’. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledge to officially recognise the independent state of Palestine, and set out their support for Israel’s ‘right to security’ (Lib Dems) and ‘a secure Israel’ (Labour). They both also commit to suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia – but Labour also guarantees to halt the sale of weaponry to Israel, which it claims are being used ‘in violation of the human rights of Palestinian civilians’.

Labour specifies many of the international conflicts it would take a clear line on, including the protection of minorities in Sri Lanka, with the manifesto mandating that Labour would embed human rights advisers in the Foreign Office, and ‘advocate for human rights at every bilateral diplomatic meeting’. The Conservatives also mention Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East as priority areas for UK humanitarian and reconciliation work, but avoid taking sides in these disputes.

For the Liberal Democrats, it is clear that Russia and China are seen as the two principal global risks to peace and security. They pledge to support Ukraine against an “increasingly aggressive Russia” and to reopen the British National Overseas Passport offer to the people of Hong Kong, including the right to abode. Astonishingly, the Conservative manifesto makes no mention of Russia nor China whatsoever.

While the British people continue to hold mixed feelings about the scale and nature of the UK’s development budget, the spending commitment to aid will not be challenged in the next parliament. All parties emphasise the potential of development funding to improve women’s equality and protections, girls’ education, LGBTQ rights, and halt environmental degradation. Responding to the recent space of shocking aid charity abuse scandals, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledge to enforce more timely and comprehensive reporting frameworks.  

The imperative to strike new trade deals has compelled all parties to set out the essence of their approach, and what is particularly notable is the extent to which each focuses on their red lines of negotiation. The Liberal Democrats would refuse to enter trade agreements with countries pursuing environmental policies contrary to the Paris Agreement. Labour is unequivocal that “human rights should drive our trade policy”, and would therefore reject any Free Trade Agreements that would ‘undermine labour standards or environmental protections’, including safeguarding workers’ rights. They also make clear that the NHS would be thoroughly off the table. 

Curiously, there is no mention in either of the Labour or Liberal Democrat manifestos of agricultural standards – one of the most crucial areas of potential negotiation and a point of special public concern. The Conservative Party do highlight animal welfare and food standards as areas that will not be compromised, alongside environmental protections and the NHS. They also set out a wide-ranging suite of principals for negotiation, which will at once allay concerns about our free trading future ushering in a ‘race to the bottom’ in standards, and also raise questions about how meaningful these new trade agreements can be, when so many red lines are drawn. 

A very significant contribution to the public debate on trade comes from the Labour Party, which pledges to introduce legislation to afford a greater degree of scrutiny to parliament for Free Trade Agreements – a policy that would be of even more pertinent use to them if they do find themselves once more on the opposition benches.

All in all, these three manifestos – and the red lines being suggested from potential coalition partners the SNP – make clear that whatever the outcome on 12 December, Britain’s foreign policy is moving beyond the age of cross-party consensus. The referendum on our membership of the European Union has ushered in a new era of contested diplomacy, throwing the gates open to a significant divergence from of our traditional relationships, priorities and the expression of our values – and this election will set us firmly on our new course.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.