Justine Greening: ‘Foreign policy isn’t just defence, it’s development’

Justine Greening is a former Conservative MP for Putney who served as Secretary of State for Education, International Development and Transport as well as Minister for Women and Equalities before leaving Parliament in 2019 after rebelling over Brexit. Since then, she has campaigned for greater social mobility and equality of opportunity in Britain. Here, she talks to Roxanne Escobales about the changing face of Conservatism, the need to deliver fairer outcomes for the people of Britain and the crucial role the United Nations plays in facing up to increasingly global challenges.

You became a Conservative MP in 2005 and then in 2019 stood down after Brexit. What happened to the Conservative Party during that time?

In opposition, the party went through a period of modernizing that was very much led by a new generation of Conservative politicians and MPs. We were able to win back power by reflecting a diverse country that had very different views on a whole range of issues, including the environment and LGBTQ issues.

The challenge was that this came on the back of a financial crisis that left Britain in particular really exposed. We took difficult decisions and were in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats at the time, but we won a majority in the 2015 election.

It is the post-Brexit version of the Conservative Party that has taken the party into crisis.

Whereas in coalition government, we had to straddle a broader political church than our own party, after 2015 David Cameron was then pressed by the right-wing of the Conservative Party to deliver on a promise that people should have their say on the European Union, on which they believed hung many of Britain’s problems.

It’s easy to forget that most of this period the Conservatives have spent in power came after the Brexit referendum − the version of the Conservative Party that had won that initial election was only in power for five or six years. It is the post-Brexit version of the Conservative Party that the currently dire polls suggest has taken the party into crisis.

Today there are some very different culture-wars driven arguments being made by conservatism, and those who support it in Britain, arguments that many people involved in the Conservative Party would have seen as contrary to the party’s values. I think the fortunes of the Conservative Party have become bleaker the more that has happened.

Britain is expected to have an election in 2024. What are the political issues the electorate care about?

I think there are some short and longer-term issues that are inextricably linked. The short-term issue really is the state of Britain’s finances, and the need to address the fact that we spent a lot of money to help navigate Covid.

At the same time, we have a cost-of-living crisis, a level of economic turbulence that has meant it has been hard for the global economy to bounce back once the pandemic has run its course. The long-term issue is that we are still left with this underlying issue of weak social mobility and this is a fundamental challenge to our system of democracy, that a system of one person, one vote hasn’t sufficiently delivered fairer outcomes for people around the country.

I told Nigel Farage his overseas aid policy was pro-migration.

The big question is whether our political system has the capacity and the ability to steer us down the right track and to put in place a long-term plan that will not only deliver that ambition of social mobility but in doing so put us on a sustainable track with our public finances and our economy. This will be a crucial debate for Britain.

Thus far, I haven’t seen the level of ambition that I think Britain needs from the political system. However, it’s a year to go before an election, so there’s everything to play for.

The UK once was seen as a development superpower, yet we have seen the aid budget slashed. As a former International Development Secretary, what would you like to see Britain do differently with its overseas aid?

In a 2015 debate with Nigel Farage [the former leader of Ukip and the Brexit Party], I told him that his policy was pro-migration. If we aren’t able to support people who find themselves in refugee camps after having no choice but to flee what was a middle-income country like Syria, then they will have to leave it.

It is much more expensive to deal with refugees once they have left their country.

People who fled Syria literally went over the border and then stopped in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Turkey. They didn’t want to go on those longer journeys. It’s worth remembering that most refugees are not in Europe, they are in countries across Africa and elsewhere.

In the end, it is much more effective to support asylum seekers and refugees where they are, generally in their own region, which is actually where they want to stay.

For Britain, the issue is not about being an aid superpower. It is about delivering on commitments that we have made alongside others as a country and recognizing that a coherent foreign policy isn’t just about defence, it isn’t just about diplomacy, it is also about development.

What are three foreign policy areas an incoming government should prioritize?

We have to continue the common cause on climate change. That is absolutely crucial. We have to continue to support the United Nations system to be able to provide some kind of structure in which international decision-making can take place.

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Unfortunately, it’s not a mute assumption that the international community can work through the UN system in the way that it has in the past. And that matters for a world where there are significant conflicts, some right on our doorstep in Ukraine. If you look across the globe, all continents are facing stability challenges now.

On the broader security agenda, to what extent can those of us who want a safe, ordered, rules-based world cooperate, not only on defence, but also on diplomacy and development? We have always been able to use the UN system to do this, but that has become harder now.

Is the UN fit for purpose?

The UN can be fit for purpose, but the problem is that on key decision-making bodies like the Security Council, you now have two countries – Russia and China – that simply believe in ultimate sovereignty, and therefore do not accept the premise of operating in an international rules-based ordered system. This is impeding the UN system from playing the role it has carried out largely successfully.

I think the UN is crucial in helping the world deal with what are increasingly global challenges. It comes back to the beginning of this discussion.

Image — Justine Greening speaks as Secretary of State for Education at the Conservative Party Conference in 2017. Photo: Carl Court / Getty Images.

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One of the reasons that conservatism is failing is because it’s a politics of division at a time when actually, the big issues of our time, which are basically the planet and people, need partnership, need consensus-building. They are too big to solve by a thin sliver of the public with a particular worldview.

Consensus and compromise and coming together are traditionally what the United Nations has helped provide. The sooner we can get back to enabling the UN to help the world to come together on these big issues, the better. It is a broad problem that Britain should try to play a constructive role in trying to resolve.

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