Bishop of Leeds speaks in debate on foreign policy and the UK’s role on the global stage

On 3rd May 2023, the Bishop of Leeds spoke in a debate tabled by the Bishop of St Albans on the UK’s changing role in the world, speaking about the UK’s self-perception and the need to consider the perception of other nations:

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I do not wish to detract from the power of the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has put to the Minister. I promise I will not add more questions to them; I will come at the debate from a different direction. There are two ways of addressing this Motion: first, the role of the UK as seen through our eyes in the UK, who can easily assume that ours is the only way of seeing; secondly, our role as seen through the eyes of “the world” doing the looking in. I am not being pedantic, but why do we in the UK find it so difficult to look at ourselves through the lens of those who might see the world differently?

In his excellent Chatham House speech on 27 April, the Minister for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, addressed the future of international development. Among the very good, welcome and perceptive observations in his speech, one line is understated and easy to miss: the admission that the UK Government’s cut in aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income has “dented the UK’s reputation”, as well as being “painful for our partners”. Dented? Only the partners who suffered the consequences of that decision can really tell us what they think our role in the world is now and how it is experienced. Painful reality is more persuasive than optimistic rhetoric.

The question that underlies this debate is this: do we in the UK listen to ourselves and the language of mere aspiration, or can we look through the eyes of those who experience us? I ask this simply because there is often a great gulf between our perception of ourselves and that held by others. In fact, the constant repetition of the language of “world leading” and “world beating” in just about any government statement indicates a basic insecurity about which psychologists could probably say a great deal. I would be happy with just “functional”, in some respects.

I raise this question simply because Andrew Mitchell’s speech admitted a glimpse of light into what has been a depressingly dim discourse in the last decade or so. He offers a language that sounds grown-up. In his stress at the outset of his argument on partnership, progress and prosperity, he returns us to something that sounds both sensible and realistic. Global Britain, whatever that was supposed to mean, seems to have subsided and partnership is back—thank goodness. Gone is the hubris that the UK is still a world-beating power that can function alone in a world of shifting economic and military power blocs. We can argue for ever about the rightness or wrongness of Brexit, but I contend that the corruption of our language with regard to the wider world was damaging in ways we rarely take time to understand.

For example, I have been met with incredulity in Germany and elsewhere in Europe when we make statements about the importance of the rule of law, and our moral demand that countries such as Russia and China should stand by it, at the same time as we draft legislation that consciously seeks to breach it. Just remember the internal market Bill, the overseas operations Bill, the attempt to prorogue Parliament and so on. Our rhetoric has to be supported by our action, for the latter speaks louder than the former.

The 2021 integrated review was a good start in recalibrating our self-perceptions, and the 2023 refresh helpfully illustrated how a nation’s role can change quickly depending on the shifting and sometimes dramatic intervention of unexpected factors, unpredicted behaviours or uncontrollable contingencies. At least, it was an attempt to join up different areas of foreign policy to focus on perception, priorities and planning.

To return to Andrew Mitchell, partnership holds the key to future progress and prosperity, not hubris or romantically hanging on to what we think Britain used to be. One way of thinking about this is to look through the lens of those who look at us from the outside. A week or two ago Der Spiegel published a very unflattering piece about a number of aspects of decline in UK culture, referring, for example, to food banks, poverty, the cost of living crisis and neglected urban infrastructure. Read other newspapers and listen to serious political programmes in neighbouring countries: waving a flag does not change hard reality. We might not want to agree with the perceptions of outsiders, but we would be unwise not to take them seriously.

I want to be positive about a change in direction, signalled by Andrew Mitchell’s grown-up approach to partnership, which inevitably assumes what I call a renewed sense of confident humility. I read his speech before considering the conversation among Robert Kaplan, John Gray and Helen Thompson in a recent edition of the New Statesman, which took as its starting point the ideas behind Kaplan’s new book, The Tragic Mind. Indeed, any pragmatic search for policies that drive partnership and progress and dream of prosperity has to be set against the wider and deeper thinking about the existential challenges of great-power rivalry, resource scarcity and what they call the crumbling of the liberal rules-based order in a “global Weimar”. The assumptions underlying political rhetoric and the language in which this is framed must be honest about these challenges, not seduce people into thinking that domestic or foreign policy can inevitably be forged in a world of depleting resources and increasing military threat around finite resources.

Given my previous career as a linguist, it might not come as a total surprise that I want to conclude with this plea: if we are to take seriously the existential as well as pragmatic challenges we face as we seek to plough our furrow in a field that is becoming ever more rutted and poisoned, we must listen through the ears of those beyond our shores who might not think as we do in the UK. This means that we must prioritise the learning of the languages of others if we are to know how we are seen and therefore how we might behave or speak—even framing any future foreign policy in a way that can be accurately understood by those we oppose or with whom we might partner.

Language learning is impoverished in the UK. The assumption that everyone else speaks English is both arrogant and ignorant—a dreadful combination of non-virtues. Our children need to be educated in the confident humility of learning to look through the eyes of others. Only then, as the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt repeatedly emphasised, can we understand our own culture, by seeing how we are seen and hearing how we are heard. The Empire has gone, and imperial thinking is embarrassingly redundant —although I strongly commend Timothy Garton Ash’s recent piece in Foreign Affairs, “Postimperial Empire”. We will waste time, energy, money and resource if we in the UK do not learn quickly that learning the languages of others is a massive strength and not a sign of weakness.

The UK’s role in the world must be framed in terms of realism and what I have called a confident humility. It must be framed in the languages of others, and rooted in deeper thinking than mere pragmatism or flag-waving optimism.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Tyler of Enfield (Lab): I conclude by saying, having listened very carefully to today’s debate, that we have a very proud heritage as an international player, but we need, as others have said, to repair our tarnished reputation, built up by so many people of all political persuasions over so many years, as a serious and stable player on the world stage, committed, of course, to democratic values and human rights but also to international co-operation and peace resolution. Not everyone will agree, but it is my view that the shenanigans of Brexit, the extraordinary domestic political turmoil that followed and the sight of having three Prime Ministers over a three-month period was not a good optic for our country. We need to act strategically and collaboratively to re-establish trust, credibility and clout on the world stage. I endorse many of the sentiments expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds in his excellent speech. Without re-establishing that trust, credibility and clout, we are at risk of being seen as an empty vessel on the world stage. I, for one, would hate that.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office): On soft power, I will talk on international development, because that is probably one of the best examples of where we deploy soft power. Sustainable international development clearly is and remains central to our foreign policy. It is fundamental to the goals of the integrated review. I apologise to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for having left the Committee to answer the call of nature half way through his speech. I very much share his views on Lord Mitchell—or rather Andrew Mitchell; he is not a lord, although he may become one—who is one of this country’s great experts when it comes to development, as you could see by the reception he received when he was given that appointment. We spent £11 billion on international development assistance last year, including on climate, girls’ education, global health and so on, and we remain absolutely committed to that broader agenda.

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