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Keynote Speech: Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Affairs Secretary
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On the first day of Conference, Hillary Benn MP addressed delegates and the press on Labour's internationalist tradition, the need for international collective action, keeping the country safe and creating a safer, fairer world.

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Ladies and gentlemen, 

I know the thoughts and prayers of everyone in this hall are with Alun as he recovers from his illness. Alun so desperately wanted to come to Glasgow and speak about Labour’s internationalist tradition and how that can be updated in the 21st Century. I know that when he recovers, he will continue to be a passionate advocate for collective action and creating a safer, fairer world. And every step of the way, Labour will stand with him. 

In 1950 Ernest Bevin gave the strongest definition of a centre-left foreign policy, one which I believe still has resonance today. He said: “It applies to an individual … it is common sense and humanity as it applies to my affairs and to yours, because it is somebody and somebody’s kindred that are being persecuted and punished and tortured and they are defenceless. That is a fact.” We should be inspired by such clarity of thought.  

The message of this conference, alluded to by our Deputy Leader, is bringing people together, healing divides, and utilising collective action to build a better world. It speaks to our internationalist traditions. Our arms have always been outstretched to help those who cannot help themselves, give voice to the voiceless, and hope to those without hope. But our desire to assist and our responsibility to one another doesn’t just stop at the border or the Channel, it extends far beyond that. It extends to mother in Africa who cannot buy the medicine to cure her sick child; it extends to the farmer in South East Asia who cannot feed their family because of natural disasters; it extends to the girl who cannot go to school because financial, security and cultural reasons. Together, we can give people hope and security, peace and opportunity; the chance to be who they want to be and live life how they want; the chance to enjoy the freedoms and liberties we take for granted. 

When Labour was in office, we placed human rights and worldwide prosperity at the heart of our foreign policy agenda. It worked. After 10 years, millions of people were lifted out of poverty, millions enjoyed better diets and healthcare, and millions more had the chance to get an education for the first time especially girls. Under Labour, Britain led the world and it is time we do the same again. 

But while we made so much progress, challenges persist and evolve. From poverty to modern day slavery, from conflict to corruption, from health and education challenges to the destruction of climate change, threats facing the world are many and difficult. Each and every one, if left untackled, could pose a direct threat to our national security. Because keeping our country safe isn’t just about the size of our Armed Forces, important and vital thought that is, it is also about our strength of our commitment to the poorest around the globe.   

Let us be in no doubt: there is a fundamental imbalance of power in the world and it harms us, as much as it harms those who are helpless, hopeless, and voiceless. Wherever in the world human rights are abused, workers’ rights abandoned, and democratic rights forgotten, humanity as a whole is harmed. So Labour will place the rights of all at the heart of our foreign policy – and we will work collectively through international institutions to advance their cause. 

On foreign and defence policy, Labour will provide constructive support where the Government has the nation’s best interests at heart but we will be unequivocal in our opposition when the Government places its own interests above the nation’s. So we will be first in line to support efforts to increase the aid budget to 0.7% as a clear signal that the security of our nation depends on the prosperity and stability of others. But we consider it absolutely unacceptable that the Government wishes to scrap our nuclear deterrent and engage in the fiercest self-inflicted attack on our national security for generations. The Government cannot provide a reasoned explanation about why it is desirable to incur significant financial and human cost in moving our nuclear deterrent. Until they do, Labour can never 

In order to secure its existence in the House of Commons, the Government has endangered the entire country’s safety. No nation or leader will look to Britain, see us adopt unilateralism and be persuaded to do the same. When Iran is running towards securing a bomb, do we really want to be running away from one? Failing to renew our deterrent will put Britain's national security in danger. You don't make the world safer by making Britain weaker. For as long as other nations possess nuclear weapons, we must possess them. But it is ok, argue the Liberal Democrats, because, as one of their MPs said, we are still part of NATO and covered by the French and American nuclear umbrella. So we have a Government seeking to outsource the ultimate defence of our nation to other powers. This would be a criminal constraint on our sovereignty and deeply damaging to our country. I will never allow that; Labour will never allow that. We are better than that. We don’t have to rely on others for our defence. We must work with others but we must never be dependent on them. 

Over the past few weeks and months, Labour has been setting out its plan to support the defence industry and its workers. We cannot keep our nation secure on the cheap. After years of declining budgets, we need to spend more. Labour is the only party that has fully committed to making sure our Armed Forces has the funding necessary to keep this nation safe and to protect the national interest. 

We recognise the strength of our industry ensures the strength of our nation around the world. More must be done and can be done to promote our defence industry, support innovation, and keep communities safe. That is why Labour has committed to, after a period of intensive support to the defence industry, ruling out any procurement of equipment from overseas if it cannot be upgraded in the UK. A lot of work needs to be done to support our defence industry to develop capacities required to ensure the Armed Forces has access to the equipment it needs. But there is no reason why we should rely on overseas companies to upgrade out equipment when we have the potential to develop the capabilities to do that right here at home. 

Both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister has engaged in vituperative criticism based on falsehoods. I suppose when you are a Leader of the Opposition who cannot get a basic fact about the existence of a letter right and a Prime Minister who is so busy doing nothing, it is very difficult for you to understand Labour’s policy. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party’s willingness to rely on overseas governments and companies for necessary urgent operational requirements if our Armed Forces enter a theatre of operations acts as a dangerous constrain on national security and sovereignty. I do not want our Armed Forces’ safety to be dependent upon a foreign government but on British workers in companies and subsidiaries based in Britain. The other two parties need to explain clearly, without engaging in falsehood, why they believe differently.     

We clearly have two parties who are out of touch with the need to protect our national security and economic security in this increasingly globalised world. They put forward ideas that are outdated, irrelevant, and counterproductive. Britain deserves better than a Government committed to the 1960s ideas of CND and a Loyal Opposition committed to the 1950s and 1960s ideas of the Commonwealth as an alternative to the EU. The unwillingness of the Liberal Democrats to not renew our nuclear deterrent is wrong but relatively understandable – they have never had much of an interest in keeping the country safe – but the Conservatives’ willingness to destroy our relations with the EU in pursuit of quixotic Commonwealth trading bloc is not.  

Our British identity is not diminished by a full-throated engagement with the European Union. We are not weakened by leading in Europe, nor are we strengthened by leaving it. Leaving the EU, abandoning all the progress we have made, cutting most of the economic ties we have to the largest trading bloc the world would be the greatest act of economic suicide from a Conservative Government. Britain deserves better than a party unwilling to fight for reform in the EU. Britain doesn’t give up without a fight, and we should not give up without a fight on EU reform. For every thing that needs reforming in the European Union, there are 10 more things that compels us to stay at the heart of the EU. We won’t give up without a fight. Labour will be the unequivocal campaigners for a reformed, flexible, socially just European Union.

We can do that and expand our ties with the democratic, growing nations of the Commonwealth. To force Britain to choose between the European Union and the Commonwealth displays a dangerous lack of knowledge about foreign affairs. By being at the heart of the EU and the Commonwealth, our voice is amplified. Our trade with the Commonwealth is not hamstrung by our connections with the EU but, due to a number of free trade deals, but helped. Only through suffering a lack of imagination can you believe that the biggest barrier to greater trade with the Commonwealth is the EU. Many Commonwealth nations would much rather Britain be around the table, shaping the policies of the EU, than cast outside. The simple fact is that by staying in the EU and being a member of the Commonwealth, we can the best of both worlds by being a powerful voice for openness, fairness and free trade. We don’t have to divide ourselves with one group of people to grow closer ties with another. Britain can work together with both and benefit from both.  

The world is changing and threats are evolving. Meeting and mastering them will require new answers that build on the basic blocks of our national defence. But they also require us all to come together to fight for a more prosperous, more secure, and fairer society. Britain must place itself at the heart of campaigns for global human rights, social justice in the EU, and world where everyone can enjoy security. To do this, we cannot chose between our alliances but full heartedly embrace them all. A new world, a secure Britain, a fairer community of nations can be built with collective action. Let us act together. Thank you

Gavin Holmes
Labour MP
Sunderland South and Houghton (2008 - )

Leader of the Labour Party and Bearer of the Poisoned Chalice (2012 - )

"A chance to serve, that is all we ask", John Smith. 
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