Britain ‘absent from world stage’ by failing to condemn abuses by Trump and China

Michael Savage Policy Editor
Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Britain is “absenting itself from the world stage” by refusing to show leadership over Hong Kong residents, confront China or condemn President Trump over his handling of the fallout from George Floyd’s killing, the shadow foreign secretary has warned.

In her most stinging attack on Britain’s foreign policy, Lisa Nandy said that the government was now displaying “a pattern of behaviour that is becoming very, very troubling”, and that the UK’s actions were being noted by leaders around the world.

In an interview with the Observer, Nandy suggested that the offer made by Boris Johnson to hand “a route to citizenship” to around three million Hong Kong residents eligible for a British National (Overseas) passport was too vague to be taken seriously by Beijing. Britain’s reluctance to confront China was, however, part of a wider issue, she said.

A National Guard solider and a demonstrator in Washington last week. Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

“This is a pattern of behaviour that is really deeply worrying,” she added. “We have had the appalling scenes emerging from the US after the murder of George Floyd. Last weekend, the foreign secretary was asked what he made of that, and the way in which those protests have been handled. He said it wasn’t appropriate for him to comment. The prime minister has been remarkably silent about that as well.

“It seems to me that we lose all moral authority to talk about police brutality in Hong Kong and elsewhere if we are not prepared to apply those standards equally to other parts of the world. This is a pattern of behaviour that’s becoming very, very troubling – that the UK is absenting itself from the world stage at precisely the moment when we need to show global leadership.”

Nandy praised the work of former Tory foreign secretary William Hague, but warned that British foreign policy had been “entirely framed through the lens of growth and trade” since his departure in 2014. 

“That has led us into a position where we have been courting the Chinese government, praising the golden era of Sino-British relations, without paying due attention to the need to have strategic independence and to be able to speak from a position of our values. And it seems to me that we are repeating those mistakes in the bilateral relationships we are trying to strike up across the world in the wake of Brexit.”

Police officers on guard in Hong Kong last week. Photograph: Miguel Candela/Rex

Nandy said that while the prime minister’s offer to Hong Kong residents last week was “a big step forward from a standing start of absolutely nowhere”, there was a lack of clarity that meant anywhere between 350,000 and seven million Hong Kong residents could be affected. The offer was made as he urged China to rethink its controversial security law, which pro-democracy campaigners say threatens rights in Hong Kong.

However, Nandy did not commit Labour to backing a scheme that would allow eligible Hong Kong residents to settle in the UK. “There’s a moral case for ensuring that people who want to leave Hong Kong can and that they’re provided with a safe haven elsewhere. But there is also a moral case to make sure that any sanctions that we pursue, while they have an impact on China, don’t unduly harm the people of Hong Kong.” 

She warned that the government’s approach to the threat to Hong Kong was part of its wider reluctance to confront Beijing: “We need a strategy at home and we need a strategy abroad in relation to the rise of China … and at the moment, we’ve got neither.”

She also criticised the decision to involve Huawei in the UK’s 5G network, saying that a failure to develop domestic technology meant Britain was not in a “position of greatest strategic independence”.

“The government is likely to bring forward a bill before the summer recess to chart a path forwards that will reduce dependence on Huawei in the 5G network. We would support that – we’ll obviously have to see the detail.

“After Huawei, there will be other issues. I think there’s been a naivety about Britain’s approach to China in the past decade. I think perhaps we’re starting to see that change. And that is long overdue.”