When Labour left government 14 years ago, the global foreign-policy landscape reflected the strong steer of New Labour’s liberal interventionist “ethical foreign policy.” The last Labour government had embraced a global role for Britain, one that was supposedly driven by moral idealism. While the United States was the clear economic winner of the Cold War, in the pre-9/11 world order, Tony Blair’s government had positioned the country as the globe’s moral compass. In a televised speech seeking support for Britain and NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, Blair argued, “We are doing what is right, for Britain, for Europe, for a world that must know that barbarity cannot be allowed to defeat justice.” In negotiations in Northern Ireland, in interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, as well as in framing discussions among the G-7 leaders about aid and development policies, New Labour positioned itself as the conscience of globalization. Blair believed that “the inevitability of globalization demands a parallel globalization of our best ethical values.”

When Labour left government 14 years ago, the global foreign-policy landscape reflected the strong steer of New Labour’s liberal interventionist “ethical foreign policy.” The last Labour government had embraced a global role for Britain, one that was supposedly driven by moral idealism. While the United States was the clear economic winner of the Cold War, in the pre-9/11 world order, Tony Blair’s government had positioned the country as the globe’s moral compass. In a televised speech seeking support for Britain and NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, Blair argued, “We are doing what is right, for Britain, for Europe, for a world that must know that barbarity cannot be allowed to defeat justice.” In negotiations in Northern Ireland, in interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, as well as in framing discussions among the G-7 leaders about aid and development policies, New Labour positioned itself as the conscience of globalization. Blair believed that “the inevitability of globalization demands a parallel globalization of our best ethical values.”

With the loss of some of that moral authority during Blair’s contested entry into the Iraq War, many New Labour politicians refocused Britain’s global role on Europe, the continent that had maintained some moral purity from its rejection of the Iraq War. Others rejected New Labour and its global outlook entirely, preferring to champion a mid-century welfare state to tackle growing inequality. Subsequent crises—the 2008 financial crisis, austerity, Brexit, immigration, and COVID—have cemented Labour’s base as left-wing and inwardly focused, while New Labour’s wing of the party has sought to affirm the country’s role in a wider global community. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the party’s leadership contest in 2015, for example, was seen as a win by the voices of anti-capitalism, anti-globalization, and anti-military intervention.

Progressive concern about Britain’s globalism contrasts with the embrace by the Conservatives of imperial nostalgia, as seen in the reaction to Boris Johnson’s embarrassing invocation of Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” on a trip to Myanmar as foreign secretary in 2017. That episode and others demonstrate the schism has moved beyond the Labour Party to become a culture-wide debate about Britain’s imperial legacy, with the contested role of Britain in the world at the center of British politics for at least the past decade.

Now that Labour is in power again, how will these debates over Britain’s global role and its legacy of imperialism shape its approach to foreign policy?


One site of culture warring has centered on the empire’s role in abolishing the slave trade in 1807. Former Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt has come out in support of a memorial to the British West Africa Squadron, the Royal Navy unit tasked with intercepting European slave ships leaving West Africa after abolition went into effect. She argues that the memorial would honor the seriousness with which Britain pursued its moral quest to end the slave trade, through the exercise of force and through investment in military capabilities and manpower.

But the moral legacy of abolition is claimed by Labour, too. David Lammy, who was shadow foreign secretary since 2021 before taking over the role of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs last Friday, similarly gestured at the antislavery movement in his speech to the Institute for Government in May, in which he pointed to George Canning’s “determination to look that ‘evil in the face.’” Lammy argued that “modern Britain is a story of progress,” linking the abolition of slavery to his own background as the first foreign secretary descended from enslaved ancestors, and advocating an approach that draws on the lessons of history to “enable us to work in partnership with the Commonwealth and global south.”

In fact, throughout the 19th century, both Tory and Whig MPs cited the abolition of the slave trade as Britain’s special moral heritage—one that, in effect, justified its trade policy, its gunboat diplomacy, and ultimately its acquisition of territory. Britain’s troubled conscience over empire led to attempts to reconcile might with right.

Interestingly, in the wake of Labour’s schism and the subsequent culture wars, representatives of this Labour government are not necessarily rejecting globalism outright. Lammy points to the problems of Conservative rule as not being global enough: “[T]he Conservative Party has, over 14 years, turned the British government inward. Successive Conservative governments sank deeply into nostalgia and denial about the United Kingdom’s place in the world,” with the consequence that “they have undermined the United Kingdom’s standing as a development superpower.”

That phrase—“development superpower”—links Lammy to a long tradition among left-leaning progressives for whom the empire was never a “good thing” but who held out hope that the relationships forged by the empire could be turned into a good thing, if only the right people were allowed to be in charge. As The Solidarity Economy, a recent book by Tehila Sasson, argues, the roots of this argument, and Labour’s ethical foreign policy generally, stretch back to the emergence of postcolonial Britain. Postcolonial British soft power would come through individuals and institutions and preexisting trusted relationships, rather than through suspect states. Leadership of the U.N.’s Freedom from Hunger Campaign in the 1960s and 1970s, Sasson argues, “helped Britain reclaim a global role as a postimperial nation of aid workers.”

Thus Britain’s foreign policy after the end of empire was shaped by its ability to recast its global role as a leader in the field of development—on the basis of its citizens’ long-standing relationships with former colonies. Charity shops, for instance, “invited citizens to participate in their causes as stakeholders in the domestic and global economy.” The development of this particular relationship between individual consumer agency and producers in the global economy sheds light on the question of how Britain reimagined its role in the post-imperial world: as an upholder of the humanity of those suffering from global inequality and oppressed by unjust states. By the time New Labour won power in 1997, this view of “enlightened self-interest” as bringing benefits for all members of the global community through “reciprocal altruism” became a governing principle that gave Britain an outsized voice in turn-of-the-century global governance.

In a 1998 paper co-authored by then-human rights lawyer Keir Starmer, it was argued that “commitment to a strong human rights policy gives moral authority to a government in its dealings with the international community.” Starmer’s human rights background has seen him dubbed part of the “human rights glitterati” by a former Conservative MP, and his record includes cases challenging the death penalty in the Caribbean, Uganda, Malawi, and Kenya. While the British journalist Andrew Marr claims “[t]he hubris of Western liberal interventionism is over and foreign policy under the next Labour government will not be modelled on the last,” foreign policy has nonetheless been central to Labour’s characterization of Conservative failure throughout this election campaign. In Labour’s formulation, it is not just austerity in Britain that has caused the country’s decline, but underinvestment from abroad, driven by an increasingly isolationist foreign policy. For Lammy, Britain’s special global responsibility and reputation were trashed by “over the last 14 years of Tory chaos” in which “Britain has lost influence over international decision-making.”

The current Labour manifesto harkens back to that earlier era of moral leadership: “Regaining Britain’s global leadership on development is a key part of our plan to reconnect with our allies and partners,” it states. “Labour will strengthen international development work within the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.” It also promises more soft power through diaspora links and by strengthening trade with India. The foreign secretary would like to establish a “soft-power council” and proposes expanding Britain’s role as a training ground for the international diplomatic corps.

In an April statement of the Labour Party’s future plans for government, Lammy defined this approach as progressive realism: “using realist means to pursue progressive ends” of diplomacy, development, and defense. “[I]nstead of using the logic of realism solely to accumulate power,” Lammy posited that “progressive realism uses it in service of just goals—for example, countering climate change, defending democracy, and advancing the world’s economic development.” Note the key word in that sentence: “solely.”

As the Labour manifesto argues, there is a clear link between moral leadership and national security, since “this failure on the international stage has cost the British people” by making them “less secure, with families exposed to high energy bills and food prices as a result.” The accumulation of particularly moral power will reap rewards in the shape of new partnerships and trading allies, a “revitalized Commonwealth,” as Lammy dubbed it. So how does progressive realism differ from earlier visions of ethical foreign policy? And will it avoid the pitfalls of New Labour’s self-confident idealism?


While it seems clear that Labour would like to reintroduce the Department for International Development, it is also clear that the realism comes in the form of an acknowledgment that Britain is now operating “in an era of fiscal constraint.” The focus, following the mode pioneered in the 1970s, will be trade partnerships, not aid dependency—not least because there is very little room in the budget for an expansion of aid. There will be no splurging on diplomacy, development, and defense, but “a relentless focus on monitoring and evaluation.” And with this newfound moral clarity, there will be no foreign interventions, but support for “states’ sovereignty against forces such as Russian neoimperialism, climate change, and corruption.”

The party’s newfound pragmatism comes across most clearly in discussions of China: Hong Kong citizens who have relocated to the United Kingdom will be supported; but the Foreign Office will “improve the U.K.’s capability to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities China poses through an audit of our bilateral relationship.” The manifesto paints a picture of Britain as the reliable moral compass not, this time, to the United States, but to all the newly powerful middle-income states across Africa, Asia, and Latin America being courted by Russia and China. China and Russia, by the way, offer the clearest shift from New Labour’s optimism: New Labour was operating in a world in which China and Russia were being brought into the global institutions; this Labour government will focus on rebuilding soft-power institutions—“universities, courts, and the BBC”—to shore up Britain’s influence with these rising and often antagonistic powers.

This is the British self-image as the slave-trade abolisher and Congress of Vienna co-negotiator; the bringer of the balance of power and the country that pursues peace in the interest of economic development for all. Rather than New Labour asserting its moral authority as a weapon to force others to do the right thing, this Labour government feels much less confident that its values are universal. But it still believes that by modeling what is “best of British values,” it will win friends and allies, and at least keep bullies from targeting it. It’s the hope that being good will rebuild British power, rather than New Labour’s model of using power to do good. A striking contrast with the Spectator’s baffled concern that “it is hard to see Britain’s enemies quaking with fear when presented with this well-meaning waffle about ‘progressive realism’ as a substitute for the brute exercise of power.” To paraphrase Dean Acheson, Britain may have lost an empire, but it still thinks it has a global role.

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