In many ways the Liberal Democrat conference felt more at peace with itself last week. It was not just that it was rediscovering its mission-talking seriously about enhancing liberty through redistribution of assets -Land tax and employee ownership- but rather that it was doing these things in the context of asserting its identity with far more confidence that it has in recent times. One thing was missing-the rest of the world! I can't ever remember a time when Liberal have believed that the international dimension was not central to our thinking and policy making. This detachment from the international dimension was heightened by Clegg's decision to withdraw Lib Dem Ministers from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense.
The list of issues that have defined us over the decades from Gladstone to the present day- the Concert of Europe via the League of Nations the UN and the EU- Liberals have always recognised the interdependence of the world and the allusion of national sovereignty. They have recognised that if there are no rules/law between nations the chance of war and disruption increases. Liberals have understood that liberty-the singe value we hold dearest -requires that the international 'space' is not lawless.
Today there is no major challenge which confronts us which can be solved by a nation state acting alone.
Not tackling crime, not increasing jobs, not providing good health, not creating a clean environment, not solving our economic crisis, not providing our young with the skills to prosper in modern markets, not defence, not even constructing a system of effective law for the benefit of our citizens.
Out it another way. There is now almost no area of domestic policy which does not have an international element.
So why has Britain’s only truly internationalist party, at a time when we need more distinctiveness, not saying more about internationalism?
I have no hesitation in acknowledging that Paddy's speech brilliantly laid out the challenge that faces us and more than proved his case that the interconnectedness of the modern world requires more internationalism not a futile retreat into nation state. All of which brings us to Edward Lear's ditty on the Akond of Swat
Who, or why, or which, or what,
Is the Akond of SWAT?
Is he tall or short, or dark or fair?
The Akond of Swat?
Well no-one today would ask “who or why or which or what – is (or was) Osama bin Laden”.
You see, the Akond of Swat was connected to no-one. He was just an anti-British Afghan – that’s all. But Osama bin Laden matters very much because he is directly connected to that terraced house in Bolton, planning a bomb attack on London’s underground.
Everything is connected to everything
By the way – historical note. The Akond’s son was called the Walli of Swat. He ended up going to Eton and developing a life-long passion for Brown Windsor soup. Well, you couldn’t imagine that happening to the junior Mullah Omar’s offspring could you?
So far so uncontentious. How does that analysis impact on our policy?
So what should Britain’s role be in all this?
As a medium sized mercantile power it is directly and powerfully in our interest to be as actively engaged as we can in the construction of institutions capable of creating governance in the global space, both multilateral and treaty based.
Our last Foreign Secretary, David Milliband used to talk of a “rule based world order”. Britain should be out front and active in helping to create this, from systems powerful enough to prevent instability in the financial sector, to a more effective means of intervening in the domestic jurisdictions of states who threaten the wider peace, to a better mechanism for responding to humanitarian tragedies, to the creation of an effective system of international justice.
This is exactly the policy I proposed to Tony Blair after the Kosovo war. Unhappily he chose to continue with the old delusion that Britain’s interests were instead better pursued by playing junior super power to our friends on the other side of the Atlantic.
In a world where the threats to us are mostly international in nature, Britain’s interests will, now more than ever, be best served by being actively internationalist.
I guess the one message that many will have taken away from the speech was the no nonsense assertion that the European Institutions are not fit purpose and that there can be no delay in their reform especially as the likelihood of an 'in/out referendum' requires us to actively prepare to defend our membership. Like Paddy I believe that the referendum can be won but to achieve that result we cannot shy away from the need to democratise the institutions and connect the people to the system of governance. Failure to do so will cast us adrift from the alliance that is most important to our national interest
I remember the last European referendum. Many of us were disappointed by the campaign because in concentrated on a narrow view of the economic advantage of membership rather than engaging with wider political questions that Paddy raised in this speech. I hope we don't make the same mistake in 2015. (Memo to Liberal Youth -we had a very good slogan 'Withdrawal doesn't work'. I'm sure Edward Lear could have turned that into memorable poem)