Bishop of Portsmouth – we must not let Brexit dilute our moral purpose

On 15th May 2019, the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Horam, “That this House takes note of the Report from the European Union Committee Brexit: Common Security and Defence Policy missions and operations (16th Report, HL Paper 132).” The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the debate: 

19.04.02 Portsmouthb

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth:  My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, has just reminded us that none of us participating in this debate can forget that we will shortly mark the 75th anniversary of what must surely be the most defining day in Europe in living memory: D-day. That has special significance for the city of Portsmouth, and indeed the whole diocese I serve. As a result, we will have the pleasure—I think—of welcoming the President of the United States into our midst as part of the commemorations.

Memories of D-day are long in Portsmouth, and these are memories of which we can all be justly proud. Perhaps the most powerful memory is of those young men who crossed the channel in a storm to face another storm. It was a mighty army; a staggering 156,000 men were landed on D-day itself. That represents a force just under double the size of the British Army today. It is instructive to dig into that number, because the army that crossed the channel to France consisted of men from no fewer than 12 nations. The logistics of such an endeavour rather boggle the mind, but those people made it work. It is a powerful reminder of what can be done when, despite difference, we work in concert with partners and allies for the common good—the good not just of the United Kingdom but for a more united world. More than that, it reminds us of a moment when Britain incontrovertibly acted as a force for good and accumulated colossal moral authority for decades thereafter. With considerable regret I worry that we risk squandering such moral authority as we currently enjoy.

I turn to the CSDP and the committee’s excellent report. Of course, it does not consider interventions on the scale of the Normandy landings, but it shows the good that can be achieved by deploying British expertise and know-how in, as paragraph 90 says,

“lower-intensity crisis management, such as capacity building, reform and training”.

The committee rightly draws attention, as others have, to the important success of Operation Atalanta, a signal success in suppressing piracy using Type 23 frigates well known to Portsmouth. This has seen a reduction in reported pirate attacks from 176 in 2011 to just nine in the past three years, according to the Government’s response to the committee.

The tragedy—and it is a tragedy—is that we might be willing and able to participate in future operations, but our leverage in planning them will be more limited. We risk looking from the outside in. That is something on which the committee rightly focused, not least in noting that the Government’s aspirations for their co-operation with the EU on the CSDP is some distance beyond the current third-country model. The Government’s response acknowledged that the model allows operational but not strategic involvement, and goes on to note that the overall initiative to strengthen strategic partnerships with third countries is “ongoing”. I would be interested to hear the noble Earl’s analysis of how it has gone on and how such aspirations will become reality.

That we even have to ask such questions is a source of sadness. It would be a tragedy for the influence we have to be lost. We have perhaps punched above our weight; we now risk punching below it. Our soft power risks being that much softer. But “soft power” is perhaps a misnomer. The CSDP is not about projecting power: it is about doing good and doing the right thing. Limiting our capacity—indeed self-limiting it—above all risks those whom we seek to serve: those at risk from instability, those subject to violence or those who live in fear of violence. It risks ordinary people who just want to get on with their lives.

Recently, someone told me that they were “Brexited out”. It is a new verb, in increasingly common usage, and I am wholly in sympathy with those who suffer from the debilitating effects of the syndrome. But Brexit, or being “Brexited out”, does not provide a reason to turn away. We must engage and serve the wider world. We must not let Brexit dilute our moral purpose.

Lest we forget, our moral purpose is lived out in the nitty-gritty of how we participate in endeavours such as the CSDP. Lest we forget, deploying British expertise and know-how within a multinational enterprise can be a tremendous force for good. Lest we forget, we have a duty as a developed, affluent nation to be a force for good.

Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom (Con):  My Lords, I agree with absolutely every word of what the right reverend Prelate said. He reminds us of what is at stake when we speak of defence, but also of the value of alliances…

… In these circumstances, it is right for the UK to fashion its defence and security based as much around the new threats as around the old, and around mobilising our civilian population as much as our distressingly small military forces. What a pity it is that we seem to be doing our best to diminish our own influence with the decision-making process that is so important to our own policies and our own future. The right reverend Prelate spoke of the risk that we are squandering the moral authority we currently have. He was quite right.

Lord Bilimoria (CB): … The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth put it very well: our country, with 1% of the world’s population, has always punched above its weight. Our soft power is unbeatable, but now we will be punching below our weight. I would go one step further—we will be punching ourselves…

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe) (Con): …As a contributor to a specific CSDP mission or operation, the UK would be there at the very start. As my noble friend Lord Horam made clear, the UK would participate in the force generation conference, the call for contributions and the Committee of Contributors meeting to enable information sharing about the implementation of the mission or operation. It should also have the possibility to second staff to the designated operation’s headquarters, proportionate to the level of its contribution. All this is recognition by the Commission that a perfectly reasonable quid pro quo for our involvement in an EU mission or operation is to be closely involved in the planning stages. Therefore, I do not share the view of the right reverend Prelate that our leverage will somehow be reduced….

…The cornerstone—indeed, the bulwark—of our defence is NATO. The EU certainly can and does complement NATO’s role, but I cannot agree with the right reverend Prelate that the political declaration leaves the UK punching below our weight in defence terms. We remain the most significant European member of NATO. We are determined that our growing bilateral relationships with friends and allies, both in Europe and globally, will ensure no diminution in our soft power or the levers we use to exercise it….

Lord Horam: My Lords, I will wind up briefly by thanking all noble Lords who made contributions to this debate. It has been a genuinely interesting and well-informed session. I also thank my noble friend the Minister for the clarifications he was able to bring on a number of subjects. The theme throughout, endorsed by everybody, was that as we leave the European Union it is absolutely in the UK’s interests that we continue to play a significant part in common security and defence operations. As the Minister himself just said, Europe’s security is our security. It is in our interests and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said, it is also the right thing to do.


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