This the full text of a speech delivered by Tom Tugendhat MP to the Conservative Party Spring Forum at the weekend. Tom Tugendhat is Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.
first became interested in foreign policy for the very obvious reason that if you have a name like mine you ask yourself who you are and where you are from.
Now for me the answers were always pretty clear on one level. I’m from Kent, I’m English, I’m British, but I’m also of European origin. I’ve got deep links across the continent and like everybody here, like everybody who is truly Conservative, I’m really proud of my family, I’m really proud of where I’m from. And I’m also really proud of where we are today.
That answer ‘where we’re from’ is not the question we’re looking to answer today. We’re looking to answer where we’re going. What it means to be British in a globalised world. What does it mean to be Global Britain?
I didn’t learn much of that here. I learnt it in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. I learnt it in the heat of combat serving alongside some of the finest men and women this country has ever produced.
I learned it as we lay in ditches and told each other those stories you tell in the quiet hours before battle or as we were tidying ourselves up afterwards.
And I learnt then about their lives. What had brought them, what had brought us, together. I learned through them about our country and our society.
I learnt that our country is an extraordinary country. I learned that we have managed to produce, have managed to bring together, have managed to channel the best and bravest, and indeed the funniest people who I’ve ever had the privilege to serve with.
I’m not alone in thinking this. The extraordinary thing when I hear the national debate going on at the moment is this obsessive self-doubt. This absurd though that somehow all of that history, all of that thought, will come to naught. That’s just rubbish.
And I’m not alone in thinking that. In fact, I’m not alone in thinking that in Europe and I’m not alone in thinking that in the world.
One of the great things about this job, one of the great things about chairing this committee, is that I’ve been around the world and I’ve spoken to people and I’ve heard what people want from us.
What they want, we offer.
We offer values, that commitment to freedom, to prosperity, to the rule of law.
We offer skills, we offer the strength of our extraordinary people through imagination and creativity. And we offer that extraordinary thing that so few others do – we offer the ability to back it up. That’s military might, true, but also that’s diplomatic might.
That continuum that is foreign policy strategy, true strategy, that takes you from aid, through trade to defence and links all together. That’s what we offer.
In the past year and a half since I’ve been chairing this committee I’ve had the privilege to sit down with many from Communists in Beijing and I’ve had the great privilege of laying a wreath on behalf of our own Queen in Delhi on 11 November last year.
And I’ve noticed the same thing everywhere. They respect our position in the world. They may challenge it, they may question it, but in their hearts they know it matters because they know the rules matter.
And that’s why we need to do three things, and that’s what I’ve been working on.
First, we need to reengage with Europe. I know this is a strange thing to say today but we do need to reengage in Europe. Not in Brussels, but in national capitals. We need to reinforce that Europe of nation states that so many of us believe in of partnership, of cooperation, and of alliance.
Second we need to renew our old alliances from the Five Eyes community to the Commonwealth we need to work with friends, with friends who we’ve grown up with, who we’ve fought alongside, who we understand and who understand us.
And third, we need to confront the effects of other people’s foreign policy, at home, here, in the UK. Because we’re not alone in facing that. We know foreign dictators, foreign autocrats, are spreading poison. We know that they are corrupting our institutions and we know that we are doing too little to push back.
Those themes, bringing them together, will empower our nation and ensure that our people are able to choose their own path to a prosperous and free future.
That is exactly where we are headed.
Ignore the naysayers, ignore the doom-mongers. Ignore those who keep talking us down. They are wrong. Yes there are risks and there are challenges, so of course we are going to have to face those risks but this is a moment for imaginative thinking, for free thinking. We can leverage the past and we can write a new chapter.
As we determine our path more clearly, we will need to change the way we work at home. Because the first thing that we must remember about foreign policy is that it is about our people about how we see our place and how we wish to shape our future.
Now we’re Conservatives and we understand something absolutely fundamental. You cannot build your own, independent foreign policy with other people’s money. It doesn’t work.
So we must make sure that everyone in our country is ready to play their part in reshaping our nation and that means building our country at home.
There are various areas we can look at and there are a few we have got to think hard about and they are about valuing individuals, valuing communities and valuing our skills.
Too often, we have underrated real skills, engineering, and practical knowledge. Real jobs. And we have pretended that the only path to success is academic knowledge.
Tony Blair demonstrated that misguided metropolitan mindset when he said that fifty percent of people had to go to university. That was always wrong.
What it said was that a skill, that ability to make something or do something was second class and second rate. It’s not. It’s first class and a first rate opportunity to build a first rate country.
That real knowledge, not bluff and bluster that you hear from so many sadly today, is the kind of deep education that builds our country and continues to enrich the manufacturing heart of our nation. Too often it has been overlooked. Not today, and not by this government.
Because as Conservatives there is something we have done that I’m really proud of. The new T-Levels that are coming in are the equivalent of, the equal to, the A-Level show that we are bringing equality into education. But we need to go further. We need to address the stigma that has tainted the practical side of knowledge.
And for this we need to look abroad for lessons. If you do an apprenticeship in Germany, and you do well and get to the highest level, you get the respect of the title meister. It’s an honorific and rightly so. If you become an engineer in an Arabic speaking country you will get the respect of the title mohendis, again, an honorific showing value.
That’s because those cultures understand and respect the effort that individuals have put in to practical genuine knowledge. We need to do the same. We need to put the respect back into real knowledge and real work.
We haven’t forgotten it everywhere in the UK. If you call a sergeant sir, you’ll get the answer: “Don’t call me sir, I work for a living”.
Because he is reflecting that knowledge that hands on work, not just management, is a matter of dignity and pride and something to be respected.
We need to welcome those who are empowering our new economy. Visit Manchester or Newcastle, visit Belfast or Bristol, and you will find cities that have a greater understanding of artificial intelligence and biotechnology than whole countries. You will find individuals that have sat down to chart new futures not just for themselves, not just for their communities but for the whole world basing themselves out of some of our most important cities.
We know that we can transform the world, but we also now that relies on harnessing the industries that are revolutionising technology. We can only do that if we are the best, and we can only be the best, if we are open.
I was really struck when in India recently when I heard time and again that some of the best students weren’t coming to Britain. They were going to Australia and New Zealand, to the United States and Canada to study there. Now why was that?
Because their countries are open. More engaged, more willing to accept students from around the world. Those countries benefited from those students too. You just have to look at the names working for some of the largest tech companies in the world to see what immigration can do.
Now I’m not going to back them on everything but Amazon, Google and Facebook have demonstrated that immigration can really drive economies.
But instead of looking open, too often we have been closed. If we are going to play our part in the world, we need to change that.
I want to see a reform. I want to see our top universities to those students I met in India who deserve them, getting round the bureaucracy and straight to the empowered economy that would generate.
That simple change would promote competition at home amongst universities. But also amongst those who are the best in the world who want to come and share that opportunity. An most importantly, it would show that we are still at the heart of an open, engaged world and we are at the heart of the network that ties it together.
Now, we know that universities bring huge prosperity to communities but new student buildings and improved rail links can distract us from those areas that have not benefited and missed out on attention and investment. And this is a story that we see across our towns and cities. And the truth is that too many of our communities have been disempowered.
Now years of centralisation under Labour have left us looking too often at Westminster and not at ourselves and we know this is wrong, because we know what makes the strength of our own party. We know that the strength of our own party is our local associations, our constituencies and not, I’m afraid, Central Office and central power.
Very soon, there will be thousands of Conservative councillors standing for election this May ready to empower communities and citizens. We need to focus on their ability to deliver because that is the localism that we have often spoken about but too often failed to see through. The lesson is clear. Well run Conservative councils deliver strong public services despite very real challenges to their finances. And they should be applauded but they should also be supported. Because we must recognise that they are taking the tough decisions at the local level that enable them to deliver for the people who chose them, who elect them, and who want them to be making local decisions in an accountable and local way. Because that’s how accountability works.
That local accountability applies to all of us. That’s why as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I’ve been doing something a bit differently. We’ve been taking the committee around the country not just around the world. We’ve been listening to find out what people want from a global Britain. We’ve been hearing what people say about our place in the world and trying to understand different perspectives. And seeing what we can do to deliver them. Unless Britain’s policies can be viewed through the eyes of those who have asked us to deliver, how can we know if they’re working?
As Conservatives we’re not afraid of government. We know government has its place. We know it builds on the essential building blocks of society: on families; on communities; on businesses. So that’s exactly who we listen to on these trips. And we hear from them their perspectives. On travel, on trade and on engagement. We’re not afraid of international organisations either. We know they have a place and a role.
But just as the country is built on associations and on families, international organisations are accountable to nation states. The nation is the accountable unit. Not the multinational body. And that’s why even though we are leaving the EU we are not leaving the community of Europe and our values and aspirations will continue to be shared across Europe. Working together we will make sure that we contribute to each other’s prosperity.
Today, this will be through bilateral agreements and organisations like NATO, where we already play an outsized role. But I would like to see that grow. I’d like to see our defence spending increase, so that we’re able to show the leadership that is so essential today: in challenging our enemies and in supporting our allies. We want to be want be what former US Defence SecretaryJim Mattis calls the US Marine Corps: “no better friend, no worse enemy”.
We understand the importance of those alliances. And we understand the importance of those international organisations and the rule of law. But those alliances do demand investment, and they do demand the effort we need to maintain those things we truly value: free speech, free trade, free markets and, of course, what underpins all of them: a free democracy.
Today, again these ideals are being threatened. The age of the strong man leader is back. It’s on the rise. From Venezuela to Russia we’re seeing autocrats repressing their people. Sadly we are also seeing too many in our own country drawn in. Now I don’t just mean those who have spent decades providing cover for demagogues and dictators, like today’s Labour leadership. But also their fellow travellers who believe in top down centrally planned, nightmarish government.
There is no worse sickness than socialism. It comes back. And we know the result. You don’t just run out of other people’s money. You run out of freedom too.
It’s our job as Conservatives to call it out and to stop it taking root. Now that’s not just for ourselves, and in fact it’s not even for our country. It’s because Britain’s place in the world is to guard those values and to guard those freedoms.
I know we can do it. And I know we will do it. Because as an island of liberty and opportunity we are still looked to by people from around the world. And building on real skills, building on an open culture, building on competitive markets, we can be a partner to our friends and a prosperous home to our people.
These are not just our values, not just Conservative values. I think these are fundamentally British values. They empower us at home and abroad and they bind our communities together. And that’s why I’m proud to be a Conservative. And I’m proud to be with you this morning.
I’d like to finish by thanking you for everything that you do: not just for your associations, not just for our party, but for our country and for the efforts that we are all making to guard that flame of liberty and democracy in the world. Thank you.