Bishop of Winchester on importance of education, religion and voluntary agencies in UK foreign policy

On 21st May 2019 the House of Lords debated a Motion from Lord Howell of Guildford ,”That this House takes note of the Report from the International Relations Committee UK foreign policy in a shifting world order (5th Report, HL Paper 250).” The Bishop of Winchester, Rt Revd Tim Dakin, spoke in the debate:

Early on, the report endorses the rules-based framework for international relations and emphasises three contributory dimensions in which the rules operate: the political aspect of liberal democratic nation states; the economic aspect of the increasing globalisation of economic relations; and the diplomatic expectation of peaceful change. While endorsing the significance of this framework and noting the strength of commitment to the rules-based international system, or RBIS, in the responses of HM Government to the report’s 66 recommendations, I add the need to re-emphasise the place of education in soft power, the place of religion in transnational civil society and the contribution of the voluntary sector to fostering mutual development in a shared world. These strengthen the realistic assessment of physical and cyber security, trade relations, human rights and maritime communications, which all contribute to a peaceful world order.

My main point is that a greater emphasis on the soft power of higher and further education, on the religious and civil aspects of society and on voluntary agencies for mutual support actually strengthens the RBIS framework but also begins a transition towards new ways of working. In a world where everything is highly connected through modern communications, and where there can be a dramatic influence by the local on the global and vice versa, the rules-based framework is shifting in its emphasis. In whatever way we interpret this shift, alternative perspectives are shaping our thinking, drawing on cosmopolitan ideals, global governance models and international covenants. I am not proposing any of these, but they should influence our thinking when our world is now more polycentric, informal media voices count and values are increasingly central.

I therefore welcome the general impression given by the Government’s response to this report. There is a sense of new openness and reinvestment in our international relations. Alongside the recognition of major changes in the reality of our relationships with Europe, the USA, China, Russia and India, there is also an affirmation of the importance of middle-ranking powers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The commitment to invest in new positions, the language audit and the establishment of new missions all indicate a positive engagement. Cross-departmental working is also most welcome.

My reflections are therefore limited to the three points I highlighted earlier. First, in continuing to promote soft power, I again advocate for the importance of the UK’s higher and professional education offer to the wider world. By its nature, higher education is one of those aspects of cultural engagement that allows for a real mutuality, and therefore a re-evaluation of the British perspective and its contribution to other nations through its education of those who will lead and build societies elsewhere. My own portfolio of interests from these Benches includes further and higher education. I therefore again advocate for a more informed approach to the PR impact of including student numbers in the immigration figures. We lose the chances of sharing, through higher education, our liberal democratic perspectives if students are put off from coming earlier on. The numbers are going in the wrong direction, and the influence we might have had is diminishing. Our world-class education might therefore not be accessed by some of the best minds in the world. However, I note that the Government intend to increase international scholarships and professional bursaries. These will certainly enable the kind of future relationships the report proposes.

Secondly, I suggest that in a world where up to 80% of people are committed to a religion or belief, it is vital that our policy of international relationships includes an expertise and engagement with what motivates billions of people, framing their personal and social aspirations. There are literally billions of Christians and Muslims and millions of Hindus, Buddhists and members of other religions. This dimension of human life is not confined to the private; it is public, social and transnational, and a core element of civil society. From a Christian perspective, I know well the importance of the Catholic Church and the networks of the Anglican Communion, which stretch across over 160 countries. I therefore warmly welcome the recent draft report from the Bishop of Truro looking at the persecution of Christians worldwide. This not only points up a key dimension of human rights but shows the need for greater religious literacy about what people are prepared to live and die for in the contexts of their countries and nations. People seek change and vote for change mostly on the basis of deeply held convictions. Our understanding of politics and how these shape our global economics cannot be separated from the tap-roots of the religious beliefs that people who construct these imaginations draw on and express. I therefore urge that religious literacy is a language that could be invested in as part of this new openness to international relations.

Lastly, I was a little surprised not to see an emphasis on the importance of the voluntary or charitable sector’s contribution to international relationships, particularly in connection with the UN sustainable development goals. These goals represent an advance on the millennium goals that had a real and practical impact on questions of global poverty and health. There are 17 goals; they start with “no poverty” and conclude with,

“revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development”.

In my own diocese, we are encouraging a new emphasis on global citizenship, particularly in Church of England schools. These 17 goals capture something of what it means for us to work together across the world for a common future, recognising that we are all citizens of this one planet. I would like to have seen in the report and the Government’s response a greater recognition of the SDGs in connection with the references to NGOs. Linking back to my second point, I also suggest that an 18th goal needs to be added—religious freedom for global good—so that we can harness the resources of religious communities locally and transnationally to tackle some of greatest global challenges, not least that of climate change, which is now a shared crisis and is presenting itself in the clear threat of species extinction and predictions of sea-level rises.

I congratulate the new Secretary of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, on his appointment and hope he will consider these points in collaboration with his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as they shape our foreign policy in a shifting world order.