Internationalism or Isolation? By a former British Defence Minister

15th February 2016

Internationalism or Isolation?

Tories divided over Europe; Labour needing policy. Heard this before? Yes, you are right. In the 1990s with the Major Government and the Maastricht Treaty. What did Labour do then? Well, it didn’t just make life uncomfortable for the Government in the Commons but more importantly, initially under John Smith and then continued by Tony Blair, Labour set out to make itself relevant on Europe not just across the UK but also with all its sister parties across Europe.

The reward for this was of course the victory in 1997, but it did not stop there. We worked with MPs from our sister parties especially in Germany and France to open proper and effective two-way dialogue on policy and strategy. It meant that the UK Government was at the centre of Europe. This was welcomed by governments across Europe and those in our sister parties also welcomed this relationship and much changed approach to the EU.

So how is this relevant to today?

Of course the situation is slightly different but the most important lesson is that Labour must always reflect its international credentials and work with politically similarly aligned parties across Europe. With Alan Johnson at the helm of this campaign I hope he will take this on board.

But, closer to home, some are asking – what about northern cities where the electorate is a bit more sceptical on Europe?

We can’t tell the electorate how to think (we tried that in the 2015 election) but we should accept the responsibility to inform them of how the EU has helped the UK. This has not just been practical economic help but also in terms of the peace and security we have experienced across the continent and in the fight against terrorism, which knows no borders, and maybe critically for our friends in the Unions, the enhanced workers rights we now have which were fully endorsed and introduced by the last Labour Government and which the Tories would love to try and dismantle if they could.

The challenge for Labour is to show to the country that we are still and always have been the party of internationalists not of isolation, and not just in Europe but around the world. And by that I do not mean some of the barking ideas being thrown around by the Islington elite on foreign policy!

So the UK status in the world is critical and our at-sea continuous nuclear deterrent is one way we play our part as a key NATO power. In this respect the Defence Committee wrote to all defence companies about the rather ridiculous ideas being suggested about drones and submarines suggested at the PLP meeting last week. Their responses will be very interesting.

But what this ongoing and needless row showed (needless because Labour has a settled policy on Trident) is the lack of proper understanding about defence and foreign policy by the party’s leadership. They should have asked these questions at the PLP if they wanted real answers rather than fantasy suggestions.

I have always believed that at the heart of our Labour values is our internationalism, just as Hilary Benn made clear in that speech in the Commons and again at Chatham House last week.

It is time for those of us in the Labour movement to stand up and defend our internationalism and avoid the depths of isolation in Europe and the world that was part of the Tory legacy to Labour in 1997.

By Ivor Caplin

Former Defence Minister

Watch this October 2015 interview: THE VOTE: former Hove MP Ivor Caplin on where next for Labour

Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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