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Shadow Foreign Secretary's speech, Manchester 2009

William Hague (Conservative)

Location: Manchester

This week in Manchester we have shown we have the leader, the team and the policies to provide the next government of our country.

In foreign affairs we will show the same understanding of the challenges and the same clear sense of direction we have demonstrated in economic affairs. From the very start we will never forget that out in Afghanistan are thousands of our servicemen and women doing their utmost to serve their country, and their sacrifices and their safety must be in our minds day and night.

We always support our troops, but we have not shied from criticising the Government’s conduct of the war in Afghanistan when we have felt we must speak out. When Liam Fox called nearly four years ago for more helicopter support he was right. And when David Cameron and I called for a tough approach to electoral fraud in a country where government must be legitimate in the eyes of its people, I believe we spoke for the people of Britain.

We will be clear about our objective, which is simply this: for Afghans to be able to provide for their own security and livelihood without presenting a danger to the rest of the world.

And knowing as we do that failure to accomplish this would bring new opportunities for others to build networks of terror, we will work with President Obama and our NATO allies to give a new strategy, provided it is based on good governance and the protection and winning over of the people themselves, time and support to succeed.

But we will be clear too that our forces will not be there forever, and that whenever the British Army is sent to war, it must be whenever possible on the basis of agreed objectives, proper co-ordination with development assistance, every effort to provide the right equipment and an explanation of their mission from the highest levels of government at the very outset. That is what will happen under a Conservative government.

Influence on world affairs is linked closely to economic success. Tony Blair exploited to the full the transformation of British fortunes achieved by Conservatives in the ‘80s and ‘90s, while he and Gordon Brown will leave behind them a nation diminished by their catastrophic stewardship of the British finances.

Nor has Brown helped by bringing to foreign affairs the same calculating short term cynicism that is bad enough when kept here at home: Americans were not impressed by being told one thing about the Lockerbie bomber and Libya another while the Prime Minister hid from telling the British people anything at all; no one was impressed by an Iraq inquiry delayed for electoral reasons and then set up to sit in secret - Brown has never realised that no government will ever gain from treating its own people or the rest of the world like fools.

So our inheritance if we win the coming election will be of British retreat in foreign affairs, at the very time that power in the world is in any case shifting rapidly to the east. It is argued that in such a world Britain can only exercise its influence through the European Union. I say the EU is one very important way in which we do that, and that indeed when it comes to dealing with Iran over nuclear policy, Russia over energy security, or the Balkans to prevent new conflict or disorder, we need Europe to use its collective weight in the world and indeed to do so more often.

But under a Conservative Government there will be something else: there will be a distinctive British foreign policy, geared to the promotion of the British national interest, and it will be advanced, yes, through the European Union, but it will also be advanced through the alliance with the United States the current Government have recently mismanaged, through new friendships and alliances beyond North America and Europe which they have neglected to build, and through networks such as the Commonwealth they have never bothered to remember at all.

We should never be ashamed of saying we will promote our own national interest, for the British national interest is no narrow agenda. The pursuit of what I like to call our enlightened national interest means using our diplomacy to promote free trade and sound development aid, to support with great energy the cause of Middle East peace, to use all our skills in the prevention of conflict in Africa, and to work with other members of the UN Security Council to see that international law is respected and upheld. It is not in our character to have a foreign policy without a conscience: to be idle or uninterested while others starve or murder each other in their millions is not for us.

And in the face of the two greatest threats to human welfare and peace in our generation - nuclear proliferation and climate change - it means we reject the ‘strategic shrinkage’ of Britain’s role: we will renew and reinforce our engagement with the rest of the world; we refuse to be agents for the management of our country’s decline in order to achieve that goal we have adopted five major themes to guide our approach to foreign affairs.

The first is, so sorely needed after years of chaotic decision-taking in Downing Street, is to create a true National Security Council properly to integrate at the highest levels of government the work of our foreign, defence, energy, home and international development departments. Labour’s response to this has been a classic of Brownian futility: first he announced his own National Security Committee to sound like ours, then he forgot about it, then it met only three times in twenty one months despite two wars being in progress, before he moved on to the other gestures, soundbites and empty announcements that today make up a day in Downing Street.

When our soldiers are in the frontline and our intelligence services working to the limit they are entitled to know that ministers will take the big decisions together, with all the information, and followed through in every single department.

Our second theme is our commitment to the transatlantic alliance, necessary as much as ever in the coming year to bring success in May at the review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to deter and dissuade Iran from the final development of nuclear weapons. Unless Iran changes course, the time is approaching for serious and far-reaching sanctions by European nations on Iran’s financial transactions and oil and gas development. The need to avert a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is a challenge that outweighs all other considerations.

Our third theme is the deepening of alliances beyond Europe and North America: this means the enhancing of what David Cameron has called a ‘special relationship’ with India, alongside the massive support we must give for democracy and stability in Pakistan. It means using our co-ordination of our domestic departments to elevate entire national relationships, in culture, commerce and education as well as in diplomacy, with nations in the Gulf, and others in North Africa or Latin America. It involves recognising too that the scale of the global threats requires a strong and effective relationship with China, and that the door should be open to improved relations with Russia if an appropriate response is forthcoming.

Fourth, we seek the reform of older international institutions such as the United Nations and the effective use of new ones such as the G20. And we seek a European Union that acts by agreement among nations, rather than by placing its own President or Foreign Minister above any nation. Let us be clear on the reasons for our opposition to the Lisbon Treaty and our call for a referendum: the ever greater centralisation of power beyond the democratic control of the people is not in keeping with the needs of the twenty-first century; it is against the spirit of our age; it diminishes our ability to pursue our own global relationships, and in its lack of accountability and legitimacy it goes against our fundamental belief that people should only be led and governed with their consent.

And fifth, given the growth of the power of nations that do not share all our assumptions on the great value of freedom and democracy, and the relative shrinking of Britain’s and Europe’s economic weight, we must all the more uphold our own values, doing so not by imposing them on others but by being an inspiring example of them ourselves. The country that drove the slave trade from the seas two hundred years ago can still be one of the greatest forces for common humanity.

That is why we place such importance on the reinvigoration of our development aid which Andrew Mitchell will spell out. It is why we see such a strong role for the British Council and the foreign language services of the BBC. It is why we are so strict in denouncing the use of torture against friend or foe. For this is how we will ultimately triumph, defeating terrorists who seek to destroy our way of life and changing autocratic countries who do not share our belief in freedom - by showing that a free, open, outward-looking society is the best, and that when that society can govern itself through the democratic institutions of a self-confident nation it can also be second to none in resilience and strength.

It is our vision of that society, and our belief in that nation, that makes us Conservatives. And in exercising the foreign policy of our country, it is these values that we will take with us, into government, on behalf of a nation that is truly ready for change.

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