Why British ‘ethical’ foreign policy will be watered down even further

By Thomas Judge


THE remnants of the ethical foreign policy consensus from the Blair and Cameron governments are likely to go with Britain out of the EU, an expert has told Redaction Politics.

Under New Labour an ethical dimension was introduced as part of UK foreign policy, which continued, although under a different guise, into the subsequent Conservative lead governments. 

However, the practice of this in actuality is questionable as the UK has exported arms to countries with bad human rights records for some time now. This ethical dimension is also a far cry from Labour’s foreign policy offering at the last election. 

Given the UK has left the EU, and will now seek new trading arrangements, whether the  limited ethical parts to foreign policy remain in place is in the balance. 

Broadly Similar Policies

The two main political parties in the United Kingdom have been broadly aligned on much of foreign policy when in government. The current precedents in the contemporary era having been set by New Labour and carried on up until now. 

Dr Jonathan Gilmore, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Manchester told Redaction Politics: “UK foreign policy under successive Conservative governments has actually mirrored very closely many aspects of the ‘ethical dimension’ of Labour’s foreign policy under Blair.”

“Whilst the Conservatives have tended to emphasise the promotion of ‘British values’, rather than ethics in foreign policy, many of the commitments are very similar.” 

This is to say there was a tonal shift, but in actuality, obligations remained the same.

These include, according to Dr Gilmore, “the promotion of human rights, democracy, international development and the practice of armed humanitarian intervention.”

The commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid was a flagship Cameron policy, for example. 

Not Ethical in Practice 

However, despite an emphasis on ethics – or British value, as some like to refer it as – being presented to the public, neither party practised what it preached while in power.

This can be seen most starkly in the UK selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which uses them in the war in Yemen, causing a humanitarian crisis.   

Dr Gilmore said both parties have, since Labour took power in 1997, in theory prohibited the sale of arms to countries with questionable human rights records.

Yet in practice, he claimed, “they continue to export arms to countries that are widely recognised as having poor human rights records.” 

“Indeed, some of whom are deemed priority markets for the UK defence industry,” he added/

The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) says £45 billion worth of arms licenses have been granted since 2008, and £5.4 billion specifically awarded for trade to Saudi Arabia, licenses given after the country began bombing Yemen in 2014.

Watered Down Further 

With one of the UK’s most significant foreign policy changes now behind us, the future of how the country positions itself in the world is likely about to change. However, this may not lead to a promotion of ethical foreign policy, or a repackaging of it in the form of ‘global Britain’. 

When asked, the UK public favours shifting foreign policy measures to a more ethical stance. A 2017 poll by Opinium found that 76% of the UK is opposed to selling arms to countries with poor human rights records. The same poll found 68% of people were specifically opposed to selling arms to Saudi Arabia.  

Despite the position being popular, and Boris Johnson not being shy of appropriating left-populist policy when it suits him – his rehashing of the rhetoric around a Green New Deal is the prime example – it seems unlikely the government will enhance ethical foreign policy. 

Dr Gilmore said: “As the UK seeks to forge future trade agreements after leaving the EU, there’s a real risk that the liberal values that the UK seeks to promote in its foreign policy, will be side-lined to prioritise Britain’s economic interests.”

Although currently advertised as temporary, the cut in a foreign aid budget may signal the beginning of a shift in the way Britain behaves towards the rest of the world.  

There is expected to be a drop off in trade with Europe when Brexit sets in. A massive economic downturn is underway already due to Covid-19, which is only deepening as we enter a third, possibly lengthy, Lockdown.

Given this, ethics may go completely out the window in favour of securing a capital influx to fuel a post-pandemic and post-Brexit recovery. 


Opinion articles featured on Redaction Politics reflect the views of their author, not those of the publication as a whole. Only Editorials display the opinions of our management.


Featured Image: Pixabay

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