A question of moral leadership

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Britain needs to boost its capacity to conduct cyber attacks on foreign enemies, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said before the publication of a national security review this coming week. [EPA]

Out of the EU, the UK is in a foreign policy tailspin. Boris Johnson’s moral leadership is in question and government decisions are tarnishing diplomatic relations, writes Emilie-Louise Purdie.

Emilie-Louise Purdie is the head of research for the Scottish National Party at the UK Parliament

As the UK readies to welcome international leaders in Carbis Bay and Glasgow for the respective G7 and COP26 gatherings this year, moral global leadership should not be in question. Yet, the moral leadership of the Prime Minister has been publicly challenged this week by his predecessor Theresa May.

Boris Johnson’s decision to mothball the Department for International Development and subsequently scrap the 0.7% foreign aid target has put the UK’s global reputation in jeopardy. Refusing full diplomatic status for the EU’s Ambassador to the UK sends a signal to our nearest neighbours of pathetic political posturing.

The Prime Minister’s integrity in the Brexit negotiation process was absent and wrong-footed our relationship with the new President of the United States. After all, what value is a state willing to break international law and walk away from an international treaty?

This month the UK adopted an independent trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years. The bureaucratic uphill battle is laid bare in the UK government’s Trade Bill which seeks to establish a Trade Remedy Authority and roll over 40 trade agreements the UK was party to during its EU membership.

Progress of the Bill in Westminster has been delayed and haphazard. Many issues remain unresolved in its current form, not least the role of parliamentary scrutiny. Progress was made in the House of Lords, which agreed on the need for the Parliament to hold a debate and vote on any new UK trade agreement.

Despite cross-party efforts, business and NGO support, the government rejected this amendment when it returned to the Commons.

How ironic that the UK government promised a more accountable, more sovereign Parliament in London outside the EU, only to then refuse it a role in scrutinising future trade agreements. Whilst the government ties itself in knots over what sovereignty means, the outlook for a UK trade and foreign policy post-Brexit looks bleak.

Theresa May’s account of the prime minister simply confirmed what we already know – his actions do nothing to raise the UK’s credibility around the world. Moreover, when matters of international concern like the genocide in Xinjiang come onto Boris Johnson’s desk, there is a deafening silence.

The rejection of a Trade Bill amendment which would have blocked trade with countries guilty of crimes against humanity should bring shame on the government. Despite large support from Conservative MPs, the prime minister defended his decision on the grounds of – you guessed it – sovereignty.

Echoes from history prove this rationing does not bode well for the government. When Winston Churchill called the Nazi regime’s actions “a crime without a name”, it was the international law trailblazer, Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide and ultimately went on to secure the UN Genocide Convention after the war. He called the convention an “epitaph on his mother’s grave”.

She was one of 49 family members murdered in the Holocaust. Whilst many nations began ratifying the new convention, America sat on the side lines. For decades, American administrations refused to ratify it on the grounds of sovereignty. Eventually, it was be signed by US President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

During those decades of delay, one US Senator – William Proxmire – dedicated his Parliamentary career to the Convention’s success. He carried the fight on for Lemkin and delivered a speech every single day until ratification. Over 3,000 speeches between 1957 and 1986.

Similar vigour is needed today amongst the UK’s legislators to ensure a historic moment to stand up for the Uighur people and millions more being persecuted around the world is not missed.

As attention shifts to the UK ahead of the G7 and COP26 summits, the backdrop could not be worse for the prime minister. Out of the EU, the UK is in a foreign policy tailspin. With Boris Johnson’s moral leadership in question and decisions of the government tarnishing diplomatic relations, the UK has no leverage in delivering real change.

Compromise is critical in international affairs. Listening will lift barriers to progress on some of the most challenging global issues. Lessons on both of these skills could start now with engagement on Trade Bill amendments.

When the G7 summit takes place in June, it is incumbent on the prime minister to show moral leadership and build international action against the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur people. Breaking international law, abandoning aid commitments and crying sovereignty on effective action leaves allies questioning the UK’s motives and ambitions in the world.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe