Burying the Myth of New Labour’s “Ethical Foreign Policy”

By Mark Curtis

An edited extract from Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World

The “ethical dimension” to foreign policy announced by new Labour in 1997 was played up by the media, who dubbed it the “ethical foreign policy”, a term which the government never used. As a construct of new Labour’s propagandists and the media, it provides an interesting example of how propaganda is manufactured in the British ideological system.

One only needed to read Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s speech in July 1997, a few weeks after the election victory, where he outlined this “ethical dimension” to foreign policy. The speech is very low key in content. Cook outlined a “twelve-point plan” of exceedingly minor changes and continuation of Conservative policies. One of the ways to promote an “ethical dimension” was, he said, to continue sanctions against Iraq! (One might think this point alone would have alerted journalists to how the government understood “ethical”.) Other points included condemning gross human rights abusers (naming only Nigeria), refusing to supply military equipment to some regimes and reviewing the British military training policy.

Cook’s points were consistent with Labour’s election manifesto, and mainly continued the policies of the Major government. For three years as shadow Foreign Secretary until the election victory, Cook gave no hint of wanting to pursue an “ethical dimension” to foreign policy. When the time came, the government simply played to the public, trying to depict themselves as different from the Tories, and more moral. Labour propagandists deliberately blew up Cook’s speech to emphasise a mythical radical break with the past.

This invention was taken seriously throughout the media. The Financial Times referred to “the new doctrine”. A leading liberal commentator, John Lloyd, said it was “one of the boldest initiatives taken by a major state to shift foreign policy on to new tracks”.

The government played along with the construct of an “ethical foreign policy” for a while, since it allowed it to bask behind a cloak of morality while promoting, with minor exceptions, the same policies as the previous government. But it soon became a political liability, with simply too many commentators pointing out “exceptions” to where Britain departed from otherwise promoting democracy, human rights and peace on Earth (“double standards”). The totalitarian mind is apt not to tolerate any criticism at all; and even new Labour propagandists were not able to hide completely some of their unethical policies, even with a media willing to be generally deluded.

The “ethical dimension” to foreign policy that was born in July 1997 died a death in September 2000, when the government abandoned it.

This abandonment was extraordinary. The Guardian announced on 4 September 2000 that “Labour’s ethical foreign policy…is to be dropped for the next general election”. It said that the policy “is said to have become a ‘millstone’ around the neck of the foreign secretary”. A 32 page document of the party’s national policy forum “fails to mention the ethical foreign policy or ethical dimension”.

From the perspective of the mainstream, which had viewed the “ethical foreign policy” as official policy, the government’s abandonment of it was surely critical. Under the media’s framing, the government was now serving notice that it would in effect pursue an unethical foreign policy, with all pretence to ethics abandoned, having discarded the “millstone”. Considering that every Labour minister from Blair downwards over the past three years had claimed that Labour was promoting the highest moral principles across all its policies, now suddenly saying this was no longer on, was surely worthy of note. But not so. There was barely a murmur of concern in the media. The government was saying that from now on, ethics did not matter. So what? Saddam Hussein’s journalists would have been proud.

Labour’s announcement is new in modern democracy. There is surely no other case of a government explicitly serving notice that it will not promote ethical policies. Even though the government has made this announcement, its propaganda continues and minister after minister continues to express commitment to the highest values, as normal. The media continues to take this seriously, and has not noticed that the game is over. The ideological system, at root, is really very crude.

The abandonment of the “ethical dimension” may have pleased many in the media and political class who do not want Britain to promote this ethical nonsense anyway. For example, the editors of the Independent on Sunday noted shortly after Cook’s original speech that it would be “welcome” if British officials thought about the human rights consequences of their actions, “but Foreign Secretaries need to take care”. “An unstintingly ethical approach to foreign affairs would forbid trade with China and make negotiation with [Congo president] Laurent Kabila tricky; yet both are necessary, for the sake of British interests”.

A more extreme view came from Bruce Anderson, writing in the Spectator, who noted that “humanitarian considerations should not be a major priority” in guiding British policy towards Kosovo. The reason was that no national interests were at stake as they were in, say, 1939. “We fought Hitler because he was a threat to Britain”, Anderson notes; “we did not declare war against Hitler because he was a bloodstained dictator”.