Jawad Iqbal Jawad Iqbal

The Foreign Office is in trouble if David Lammy takes charge

David Lammy (Credit: Getty images)

The heart sinks at the latest thoughts espoused by David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, on a future Labour government’s foreign policy. Lammy has penned a 4,000 word essay for Foreign Affairs on his vision of pursuing ‘progressive realism’ for Britain on the international stage. It is a less than catchy phrase that amounts to little substance. 

According to Lammy, Labour’s foreign agenda will attempt to meld together the policy realism of Ernest Bevin, the post-war Labour foreign secretary who helped found Nato, with the ethical foreign policy of Robin Cook, who served as Tony Blair’s foreign secretary when New Labour took power in 1997. Lammy lays it on thick, praising Bevin for making the argument for Britain to acquire nuclear weapons. This would be the same David Lammy who in 2016 declared that, as a Christian, he could not in all conscience vote to renew Trident – a stance may have slipped his memory.

This seems an entirely deluded and naive way of achieving foreign policy goals

Lammy gives an approving nod to Cook for his progressivism in bringing an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy, and helping bring climate action and human rights into the heart of diplomacy. This would be the same Robin Cook who resigned over the Iraq war, accusing his own government of pursuing an illegal conflict. Perhaps Lammy has forgotten that too.

So, what exactly is this doctrine called ‘progressive realism’? Lammy says it amounts to using realist means to pursue progressive ends. Meaning? Instead of using realism for transactional purposes and the accumulation of power (the very essence of traditional foreign policy goals), Lammy wants to use policy to serve progressive goals, declaring his new fangled doctrine the ‘pursuit of ideals without delusions about what is achievable’. 

Call me a cynic but this seems an entirely deluded and naive way of achieving foreign policy goals. This policy twaddle masquerading as original thinking doesn’t end there. Lammy pledges a ‘new Africa strategy’, which is not particularly new or much of a strategy. It would involve every ambassador to the continent being told to ‘promote investment’ and emphasise trade. Isn’t this what all ambassadors are told to do anyway?

There is more of the same confusion about how to reconcile aims with reality when it comes to policy towards China. A future Labour government would recognise that the Chinese Communist party poses ‘real security threats’, presumably due to its expanding military and support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Fair enough, few would disagree. Yet Lammy then goes on to write: ‘It is in everyone’s interest that China’s relationship with the West endure and evolve.’ Clarity of thought would not appear to be one of his strong points. 

The glaring inconsistencies in Lammy’s essay do not end there. Britain under Labour wouldn’t ‘seek to rejoin the EU, the single market, or the customs union’ but according to Labour sources, Lammy is planning to ask if the UK can return to attending the EU’s foreign affairs council. Labour insists it is not seeking ad hoc membership of the council or voting rights, but wants to be involved in a more ‘structured dialogue’ with Europe.

What exactly is the point of joining a body that is widely seen as a largely ineffectual decision-making forum, mainly because it has to go through a laborious process of achieving voting unanimity before action can be taken? Nor is it immediately obvious why European leaders would allow Britain to join in these meetings when it is no longer in the EU and has no plans to rejoin. Lastly, why would this necessarily achieve a better outcome than the current policy of focusing on bilateral discussions with like-minded foreign ministers from key EU nations such as Germany? 

The best that can be said about Lammy’s incoherent musings on foreign policy is that he should be congratulated for at least trying to give voters some detail on what a new Labour administration might do in office. That is more than can be said for many of his colleagues in the shadow cabinet. Even so, it is hard to see Britain’s enemies quaking with fear when presented with this well-meaning waffle about ‘progressive realism’ as a substitute for the brute exercise of power. Lammy will need to do a whole lot better if and when he enters the Foreign Office.

Written by
Jawad Iqbal

Jawad Iqbal is a broadcaster and ex-television news executive. Jawad is a former Visiting Senior Fellow in the Institute of Global Affairs at the LSE

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