Bishop of St Albans leads debate on UK foreign policy and the UK’s changing global role

On 3rd May 2023, the Bishop of St Albans tabled a motion to take note on the United Kingdom’s changing role in the world and its implications for foreign policy:

Motion to take note:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: That the Grand Committee takes note of the United Kingdom’s changing role in the world and its implications for foreign policy.

My Lords, the people of these islands have made an extraordinary contribution to the world, much of which we can be immensely proud of. However, with the contraction of the British Empire, two world wars, the emergence of the Commonwealth and our renegotiated relations with mainland Europe post Brexit, we have to continue to adapt to the changing world around us, not least as we negotiate new trade deals—a theme which I know a number of speakers will pick up on during today’s debate.

Long gone are the days when we could boast that Britannia ruled the waves or when the UK was famous for being the home of the Industrial Revolution and known as the workshop of the world, but as some things have declined, others have emerged. Today, we are renowned as a major financial centre, a provider of some of the best tertiary education in the world, the home of some of the most exciting and innovative developments in science, medicine and technology, not least in the fields of computing and artificial intelligence, and a country which has been at the forefront of international development and human rights. All this is happening in a world with massive population growth, where international trade and travel have grown hugely, where environmental concerns and climate change are rising—rightly—up the agenda, and where the ever-present threat of war, not least nuclear war, continues.

We face many challenges as well as many opportunities. China continues to grow rapidly and, as the Integrated Review Refresh 2023 report says:

“The CCP is increasingly explicit in its aim to shape a China-centric international order more favourable to its authoritarian system”.

North Korea now has nuclear weapons and is conducting regular tests. As President Putin’s war against Ukraine continues, China and Iran are strengthening their links with Russia in what many consider a worrying alliance, not least for those of us in the West. Taiwan continues to be under threat by China and could easily become the focus of international conflict.

Meanwhile, population growth across the world continues apace and is unsustainable. The recent Covid-19 pandemic was also a wake-up call. The virus spread rapidly and no country was able to prevent it infecting its population. It gave us a real-time lesson that, whatever our racial and ethnic background, we are all part of one human race. The pandemic revealed our mutual dependence and we learned a lot about the vulnerability of some of our supply chains.

In every age, a major role of government is the defence of the realm, particularly in turbulent times. I was therefore interested to read the Integrated Review Refresh 2023. Having no expertise in defence, I am content to leave that area of foreign policy to those Members of your Lordships’ House who are experts. I look forward to their contribution in this debate. However, I note that the review is proposing that expenditure on defence should increase from 2% of GDP to 2.5% over time and as fiscal and economic circumstances allow. The reason I raise this is that His Majesty’s Government have made a conscious decision to reduce spending on overseas development assistance from 0.7% to 0.5%. In other words, this is a deliberate policy shift away from assisting foreign countries to develop to increasing our military capability instead.

Of course, there are times when tyrants and bullies have to be confronted. However, it is equally important to develop and deliver a foreign policy that seeks to build a more peaceful world—and peace is dependent on justice. Unaddressed injustices and inequalities breed resentment, and in that dark pool of bitterness is born conflict. It is well said that peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. This is why Christ calls us to share in the difficult and challenging work of building peace. It is why he said:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”.

This is why the Church of England and other major Christian churches around the world have collaborated and established a peacebuilding team, to support the Church in being a reconciling presence in the midst of conflict. We have urged and continue to urge the Foreign Office to make peacemaking a major plank of its work. It is good that the Office for Conflict, Stabilisation and Mediation in the Foreign Office has a negotiations and peace process department. As far as I know, it is the only place in His Majesty’s Civil Service and Armed Forces architecture where a dedicated unit is focused solely on peacebuilding. It is a significant step in the right direction and I congratulate the Government on this. I suggest that a dedicated expert team feeds directly into foreign and defence policy at the strategic level of all policy formation, to offer solutions to conflict built on negotiation, mediation, dialogue and conflict resolution. This is the important strand of a strategic level policy design that appears to be missing from the integrated review.

Allied to this is the need for us to develop and use all the forms of soft power also available to us. The BBC World Service is a vital element of this peacebuilding process, so it is disappointing to see the cuts to expenditure. Impartial reporting is one of the most important contributions we can make to a world that is often economical with the truth or promulgates false news. It was particularly shocking when, during the protests in Iran—when women and young children were being killed while protesting against the tyranny of the Iranian regime—our Government announced cuts to the BBC Persian radio services.

The Government have now pledged a £20 million uplift to the BBC World Service, but that will do very little to restrict the planned cuts. Many BBC language services, which have played a vital role in covering not only the protests in Iran but the war in Ethiopia and the pro-democracy protests in Myanmar, are set to be cut. For example, just £800,000 could save BBC Persian radio and preserve a service relied on by 1.6 million Iranians currently in an uprising against their Government.

Similarly, our overseas development aid not only provides much needed help for some of the most vulnerable people in the world but supports our strategic goals across the world. For example, countries in the Horn of Africa face devastating famine following war, drought and crop diseases. Nearly 22 million people are in desperate need of food. Many are likely to die but many others will join the ranks of those who decide to migrate and will be added to the queues of desperate people who want to get into the UK. There is a real reason why we need to think about trying to help these areas develop. We know that our failure to deliver aid to the very same region in 2011 led to millions of deaths, but it also led to increased security threats, as terrorist groups exploited hunger to recruit people to sign up to their radical groups.

Over the past few months, I have asked His Majesty’s Government a series of Written Questions. It is significant that we have slashed our aid to these very countries. The return to the 0.7% aid commitment would help promote security around the globe—let us be in no doubt. Meanwhile, China is entering into the vacuum and buying its way into these countries across Africa and other parts of the world.

I move briefly on to climate change, which is set to have important consequences for foreign policy in the next decade. We have already witnessed how climate-caused famine can lead to instability in the developing world. Furthermore, as the situation gets worse in the Middle East and Africa, we can expect more refugees to arrive on our borders. The UK’s long-term strategy needs to be aware of the consequences of climate change and focus on environmental peacebuilding. This includes providing loss and damage payments for regions most affected by climate change, be that through famine, rising sea levels or other extreme weather events.

Going forward, our foreign policy needs to be conscious of the severe impact of climate change on the developing world and to ensure that we can adequately protect against its consequences. This also means supporting sustainable development, investing in renewable energy and promoting environmentally responsible policies across the globe. One way we can do this is by investing in green technologies, which not only support the developing world but promote British business.

At a fundamental level, the UK has been, and should continue to be, a country that stands up for human rights across our world. Tyrants are watching with interest as some people in our country want to water down some of our human rights. Surely this is the very time when we need to defend such rights and work with all those who promote them, not least in places such as Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims are being persecuted and killed.

China’s disregard for human rights is a significant threat to the world. The CCP’s treatment of its own citizens, particularly those of religious and ethnic minorities, political dissidents and activists, is deeply concerning. I am shocked to see the continued ill treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province by Chinese authorities, or Beijing’s increasingly harsh treatment of Hong Kong protesters and activists, such as Jimmy Lai, who has recently been given a very long sentence.

We have to face the fact that China is not taking a lot of attention from the rest of the world, but we must continue to protest for the sake of all those other countries which may be seeing how the majority respond to China’s bullying tactics. China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region presents a particular challenge to what the strategic review calls “our Indo-Pacific tilt”. How do the Government plan to counter an increasingly active and aggressive China while simultaneously favouring a strategy promoting relationships in the Indo-Pacific?

I turn briefly to the role of and the treatment of women around the globe. This is an area in which our country has been proud to take a lead. The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban just two years ago stands as a clear example of how quickly hard-won victories can be lost. This was a country where the vast majority of women were getting education; they were taking roles in leadership in all sectors of society. What representations have His Majesty’s Government made to the authorities in Afghanistan to ensure that girls will again be able to get an education? This is a fundamental issue that we need to stand for.

Another important area is found at the intersection of our foreign policy and our domestic policy. One of the great successes of the UK is our universities and, in particular, the many overseas students who study at them. This is one of the main forms of soft power that we can exercise in the world, and we have been brilliantly successful at it in the past. A study as recently as 2017 found that 58 world leaders had been educated at British universities, compared with only 57 in America and 33 in France. Not only did these students bring in very welcome income, but it means that we sometimes recruit from their ranks as well some very bright people. Even more importantly, they will get a taste of what it is to live in a different sort of world.

Of course, the problem is that this sort of soft power does not cash out immediately in tangible ways, but it does further our values. For example, to go back to the point I made a few minutes ago on women’s rights, someone educated here will have a deep experience over several years of studying as equals with women. This is something we cannot simply argue; the experience will far outweigh any theory.

These are just some of the many aspects of our role in the world. There are many others that I have not been able to touch on. I am looking forward to hearing how those who are experts in our Committee can speak particularly on areas of defence and trade, in which I have very little experience. I hope this brief introduction will set the scene for others as we reflect on our place in today’s world.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Brown of Ladyton (Lab): My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Frost. I admit that I had not expected to use such words, nor did I expect to agree with so much of what he said. However, I do not agree with all of it; I may come to some of that in due course. I join the noble Lord in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and thanking him for securing this debate. This is a precious opportunity to debate these really important issues. I regularly ask the Government to find more time in the Chamber to debate these issues in a longer debate, but other things are going on.

I was particularly grateful to the right reverend Prelate for opening by reminding us of some of what makes us proud to be British—the constituent elements of our soft power. I am very pleased that he made such a powerful case for our priority for peacebuilding and conflict resolution, which I have not very successfully applied much of my time in politics to trying to achieve. I agree completely that our soft power was built up through long-term strategic patience and application. Peacebuilding requires that, but we seem dramatically short of it. We are not alone in the world in doing this; how the Afghan war ended was the result of a lack of strategic patience.

Lord Popat (Con): Africa’s culture is every culture. Some 70% of the people in Africa work on farms. With a land mass of 30 million square kilometres, which is larger than America, China, India and Europe put together, you can see the fertile land they have. Despite that, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, mentioned, some 22 million Africans starve from hunger on a daily basis.

Africa contains 30% of the world’s minerals. The DRC, for which I am a trade envoy, has $30 trillion-worth of minerals; cobalt and lithium, 80% of which are in the DRC, goes to China. Eight out of nine Chinese companies are now in the middle of business in the DRC. We will need cobalt and lithium for defence, car batteries and mobile phones in the future. It is important that we develop a good relationship with that country.

The good news is that the African continental free-trade agreement is creating the largest free-trade area in the world by a number of countries, with a market size of over $3 trillion. Digitisation, improvements in infrastructure and political reform are driving the continent forward. Africa has grown more democratic in the past 30 years, with multi-party elections being commonplace. Opposition parties are gaining ground and most leaders are leaving office peacefully rather than in coups. We noticed that in Ghana. We saw President Mutharika in Malawi challenged by the court, as was Uhuru Kenyatta, and we saw how the rule of law made the opposition leader the new president. Politics is becoming more competitive because of the free press and an open society.

Lord Bilimoria (CB): I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for initiating this really important debate about the UK’s changing role in the world and its implications for foreign policy. The last integrated review, in 2021, was pretty good in predicting that Russia would be a serious threat—it got that spot on. It spoke about global Britain and about being a science superpower and world leading. We have now had the refresh this year, which addresses the Russia situation as well as China, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke about. We have the quandary of needing to be tough on China while having mutual economic dependency. How do we de-risk our supply chains, particularly with regard to energy?

Looking back in history, our Prime Ministers have built great relations with other world leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan. Tony Blair, before Iraq of course, was a very successful Prime Minister, including economically; and we must not forget Gordon Brown and the role that he played at the time of the financial crisis in convening the G20 leaders to help save the global economy, which was very effective.

I hate it when people talk about Britain as a “middle power”. That is utter rubbish. We are not a superpower, but we are very much a global power. We may not be a member of the European Union, but we are still the sixth-largest economy in the world. We are still in the G7, the G20, NATO, the Five Eyes, AUKUS and now the CPTPP. I suggest that we go even further: we should join the Quad—the security alliance between India, Japan, Australia and the United States. Let us make it Quad Plus and circle the world with the United Kingdom as a member. Would the Minister agree?

Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD): My Lords, it is a privilege to participate in this debate and begin the winding speeches, from the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is quite common to say, “I am delighted to speak after the noble Lord or the noble Baroness”, and sometimes that seems very formulaic. But on this occasion, it really has been a privilege to participate. I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for bringing this debate to us. As so often, it is a shame that we are meeting in Grand Committee rather than on the Floor of the House. If we were there, we would get much more coverage, and the issues that have been raised could be explored much more fully.

Lord Coaker (Lab): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned the importance of soft power, which is neglected. As noble Lords will have heard me say in the Chamber, I am a big advocate of defence spending. I do not think that we spend enough on defence as a country; we can argue what that should be, but we need to spend more. Some of the solutions to the problems, as my noble friend Lord Browne said, might come if we could only sort out who was doing what in NATO. We would not all have to have 1,000 tanks or 5,000 fighter aircraft or 20 aircraft carriers. Of course everyone should have an individual responsibility, but the alliance would deliver that power. That is why I think that AUKUS is important and offers a way forward in respect of that.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for tabling this debate. Without sounding too clichéd, I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that it has been a fascinating debate, and probably the most illuminating debate that I have taken part in, at least as a Minister. I have so enjoyed many of the speakers that we have heard today. Like everyone, I do not agree with everything that I have heard, but I agree with much of it and have enjoyed the passion with which the speeches have been delivered, and the depth of knowledge and wisdom.


I apologise that I have to conclude. I was going to address the 0.7% question, but I will simply say that I agree very much with the comments made. I urge the Government to move as quickly as possible to restore that 0.7%. It is an incredibly valuable thing the UK has in its armoury, not only doing good but benefiting us as well.

The UK has committed to work with our allies to shape an open, stable, international order with co-operation and partnership at its heart. Today, in a climate-threatened and geopolitically contested world, we are taking steps to adapt. We commit to taking the long-term view, acting with agility and, as always, being a champion for the values that we hold dear. I thank noble Lords again for their insightful comments and I apologise for not answering every question.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, sometimes I am asked what it is like being a Member of your Lordships’ House, and I often say that it sometimes feels like sitting in an incredibly informed, fascinating seminar with a number of world experts, and today has been just that. I will not try to name all the different speakers and the points they have made. I will just say that, for me, the fascinating speech by the noble Lord, Lord Popat, on Africa was very good, as was the speech on the Commonwealth from the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford; I was particularly grateful for that.

I am also grateful to the Minister for responding. His Majesty’s Government will hear a lot more from our House on three main clusters of areas, which I hope will be received helpfully. One, which I pick up from many of the speeches, is concern for a long-term strategy worked out with our partners as we address China, including human rights, defence and security. That was coming out loud and clear in many of the speeches. Secondly, the huge importance of the UK’s soft power, particularly in universities, in our aid budgets and in the BBC, was echoed on a number of occasions by noble Lords. Third is the vital importance of integrating climate change and environmental issues into our foreign policy. We will return to these, I am sure. Meanwhile, I thank noble Lords for their fascinating contributions.

Motion agreed.


%d bloggers like this: