The UK had finally moved on from the hawkish "liberalism" of New Labour. Enter Jo Swinson

The Liberal Democrats' foreign policy proposals are vague, patchy—and oddly familiar...

November 21, 2019
Swinson's eagerness to respond that she would take part in a strike points to a hawkish, if vague, foreign policy outlook. Photo: PA
Swinson's eagerness to respond that she would take part in a strike points to a hawkish, if vague, foreign policy outlook. Photo: PA

I still can’t quite work out what was the worst part of Jo Swinson’s answer about whether she would authorise a nuclear attack with the potential to kill millions of innocent civilians. Was it the simple, instant “yes”? Was it the smile just after she said it? Was it the astonishing response of the interviewer, Nina Hossain, who thought the answer was “brilliant,” because Swinson had used just a single word? Was it the complete lack of follow-up? Or was it the fact that you just know she thinks she smashed it?

There was a time when even those in favour of the UK having its own nuclear deterrent understood that if the country ever actually deployed any of its weapons it would be the world’s greatest ever man-made catastrophe. The most likely scenario of a British prime minister deploying nuclear weapons would be in response to a nuclear strike already underway, therefore guaranteeing “mutually assured destruction.” If the UK was striking first—and unlike Russia and China, the UK has always refused to rule this out—any nuclear-armed foe would respond in kind.

Which means, to go back to that mythical scenario when Prime Minister Swinson proudly pushed the button, a nuclear warhead would also be on its way to the UK, probably to London, and millions of us, probably including Swinson, would be just minutes away from death. But yes, okay, brilliant answer.

Until the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the Liberal Democrats’ policy on nuclear weapons was the most sceptical of the three major parties. In 2007, its conference almost voted to scrap Trident immediately, eventually narrowly agreeing to back its leader, Menzies Campbell, who planned to scrap it in 2014. Jo Swinson, then a backbench MP, backed the policy and voted against Trident’s replacement when it came before parliament.

But Corbyn’s election in 2015, and Labour’s steady shift on foreign policy after the sacking of Hillary Benn towards a more Corbynite view of the world, has clearly had an impact on the UK’s third party. It sees an opening as the “sensible” party that is prepared to deploy nuclear weapons in the name of security. The party that opposed the Iraq War now has a foreign policy of which Tony Blair would be proud.

The party’s manifesto, launched yesterday somewhat incongruously in a London nightclub, is full of boilerplate international liberalism. They would “champion the liberal, rules-based order,” and work “through the UN.” There is little detail about how those aspirations will be turned into reality. On Syria, the manifesto states that a Lib Dem government would “cooperate internationally to stabilise the region and provide humanitarian assistance,” while on Ukraine it would “promote democracy and stability.”

This is bland idealism that only has a chance of success if no one opposes it—which, of course, someone will.

There are some interesting details. The party would recognise Palestine, suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and back a Europe-wide Magnitsky Act “that would enable sanctions against corrupt individuals and perpetrators of human rights abuses.”

On international development, they would focus more spending on tackling both the causes and the impact of climate change, while the promise to “develop a global education strategy to address the urgent crisis of 263 million children missing out on schooling” will look very familiar to Gordon Brown.

But on the whole, it feels like a set of answers from the early 2000s to a series of problems from a very different—and more volatile—world. Few concrete ideas about how to deal with the rise of authoritarianism, no thoughts about how to respond to a rogue US president, and very little to say about the “liberal, rules-based order” other than it would be nice if it still existed. The world has moved on and the Lib Dems have moved back. All that we’re left with is platitudes and glib promises to be prepared to kill millions of people.

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