A Shifting Playing Field: Douglas Alexander

During his week-long visit at Harvard University in October of 2012, Douglas Alexander agreed to talk with the Harvard International Review about the European fiscal crisis, the state of the British economy, the job of opposition party leader David Cameron, as well as the foreign policy and security risks posed by Syria and Iran. As the EU begins its slow path to recover and Britain itself continues to face meager growth, Alexander has voiced strong opinions and clear policy suggestions for how to promote Britain’s shared interests with its global partners.

Beginning with the domestic policy of the United Kingdom, the Labour Party has traditionally taken a more pro-European Union stance than the incumbent Conservative Party. Has its stance shifted since the latest European debt crisis?

The Labour Party is clear that Britain’s interest and future lies in the European Union, but we recognize that Europe is changing and that there are very real challenges that continue to afflict the Eurozone. The urgent priority has to be for the Eurozone countries to address those issues, but there are additionally key issues of concern to British workers, companies, exports that we think the [British] government should be focusing on right now, such as the completion of the common energy market and digital services.

There are significant economic benefits still to be gained from a single [European] market with more than 500 million consumers. But, sadly, we’ve got a Conservative prime minister who seems to be negotiating more with his own backbenchers than with his European partners and I think you can only really explain his position in reference to the hostility felt towards the European Union by a number of concerned people of parliament.

Britain, along with many European countries, is waging a war against climbing debt on two fronts with a ratio of 47 to 35 Britons at home believing “we need to fundamentally change the way our country and economy work.” How are you dancing between the two issues?

The Labour Party doesn’t believe that the approach the government in Britain has taken is working. We had a year when the economy flat-lined and we had three quarters of negative economic growth. We are one of only two countries, the other being Italy, in a double-dip recession. So the Conservatives’ planning is not working. They believe you can cut quickly and steeply and still sustain levels of economic demand. But we think a new and different approach is needed. At the same time we recognize there are challenges in the European Union, so it’s important that we build alliances [with our European partners].

Alas, Britain is being isolated in the European Union right now and I would argue that’s a result of party interests in a way that is damaging to the national interests.

What new reforms and measures do you recommend the United Kingdom and European Union take, either jointly or separately, to restore their markets’ credibility and competitiveness for the future?

Across the Eurozone we’ve argued that we feel there needs to be a grand bargain. There needs to be on the one hand recognition of the need for cash transfers within the Eurozone with the full weight of Eurozone economies and the European Central Bank backing those countries currently facing liquidity issues and a loss of confidence in the market at the present time. But at the same time those periphery countries need to be able to embrace the kinds of labor product market and supply-side reforms that are needed to address continued productivity gaps within the euro economy. 

In the United Kingdom, we’ve argued for a different approach to be taken to the economy—looking for example at long-term infrastructural investment, whether that kind of expenditure can be brought forward, and at temporary cuts to the value-added sales tax to help hard-pressed consumers at the moment. The current approach that is being taken, whereby we are seeing more money being taken from struggling British families than from British banks just isn’t working.

Here in the United States we are facing the same problem of a weakened consumer middle class having to bail out the banks while struggling to recover their losses. Do the similarities between our two economies end there?

As I see it, there is a significance difference, which is that the British economy is in recession and the US economy is still growing. Though there are many common challenges beings faced by advanced economies around the world, Britain is only one of two countries in the G20 facing a double-dip recession, the other being Italy.

Moving onto issues of foreign policy, as the shadow foreign secretary for the opposition party, what would you say is the single biggest foreign policy issue facing the United Kingdom?

Our number one foreign policy priority, appropriately, should be Afghanistan since we still have 9,000 young British men and women in harm’s way. We feel an obligation to complete the mission in coordination with our international allies in a way that is worthy of the service and sacrifice of those British troops in the last decade. It is a matter of deep regret that it has been 14 months since David Cameron made a speech in the House of Commons on the subject of Afghanistan. I think our troops deserve better.

Beyond Afghanistan, of course, there are the continuing challenges being faced by the Eurozone. We have a direct influence and stake in influencing that debate as best we can although we stand outside the Eurozone. And more broadly, we’ve got our responsibility to address the challenges of a changing world. The British newspapers are filled with discussion about the reach of Brussels but it is the rise of Beijing that will be the generational story for my children, impacting how Britain earns its living and pays its way in the world and how we continue to ensure the rise of Asia in a way that is consistent with the broader interest of the international community.

Would the United Kingdom seek an economic partnership with China on its own?

I have sat as part of the EU delegation on World Trade Organization talks with China, I was at Copenhagen for the climate change negotiations, and I’ve attended the UN General Assembly meetings as part of the British delegation. When you have the experience of those kinds of negotiations you can see the clear benefits of being able to unify Britain’s voice of 60 million people with the larger European voice of 500 million because if you look at the relative negotiating weight and balance of interests, 60 million British citizens sitting down with 1.5 billion Chinese is not reflective of where I think British interests lie. I think these interests lie in effectively collaborating on issues like global climate change with our European partners, but of course that is not an alternative to building strong bilateral relations. I’ve visited China in each of the past few years in my capacity as shadow foreign secretary and I welcome steps that are being taken to strengthen bilateral relations in relation to trade and diplomacy in other areas.

A decade ago, you were minister for e-commerce and competitiveness under Tony Blair. What do you think are the new challenges and consequences that this radically changing field poses for politicians?

There has been a big change in the last decade and I’d say probably for the better. The 3rd Generation (3G) was still in its infancy at the time that I was e-commerce minister in the aftermath of the dotcom burst. One of the generational changes that we are seeing is not just the transmission of economic power from west to east and north to south, but also the transfusion of power from governments to citizens that’s largely driven by technology.

I saw for myself on a recent visit to Tunisia how many of the young activists I spoke to said that the role of social media like Facebook and Twitter had been central to their involvement in the revolution. I have no doubt that information technology and social media in general are going to continue to have a profound effect on our world and our politics in the years ahead.

There is also a dark side to increased technology, which is advanced cyber-attacks and nuclear weaponry. You have also been involved in controlling arms trade and proliferation. What do you make of the situation in Iran?

In relation to Iran, we have as the Labour Party sup- ported the government in these steps and been at the forefront of the effort to strengthen the sanctions regime on Iran. We’ve always supported the two-track strategy of, on the one hand, seeking to engage the Iranians in negotiations and, on the other hand, seeking to incentivize them to engage in those negotiations by strengthening the sanctions regime. We want to see the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions addressed through diplomacy and that’s why we’ve been very supportive of the work Catherine Ashton, high representa- tive of the European Union [for foreign affairs and security policy], has done in concert with other international partners in the talks that are taking place in Baghdad and elsewhere. We need to seek continued progress.

Given the equivocal and half-hearted attempts of the United States to neutralize the situation in Iran and the ongoing crisis in Syria, is the United Kingdom shy of engaging in an international peacekeeping mission that does not involve the United States?

It is for the British government and administration to speak on their own behalf. From the Labour point of view in the UK we have not advocated for military intervention in Syria. If you look at the circumstances in which we sup- ported that action in Libya, there was a very clear internal demand within Libya, there was a clear legal basis under the Chapter 7 resolution passed by the UN Security Council, and there was regional demand expressed through the Arab League. Those criteria have not applied, and don’t apply, to Syria today.

But just last week I was in Jordan, on the border with Syria, visiting the Zaatari refuge camp and for saw myself the scale of human suffering that is still being endured by the more than 30,000 people in that camp, 75 percent of them women and children. More than 400 people had braved bombs and bullets, just the night before I arrived, to run, walk or crawl across the borders and join already more than a quarter million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring Jordan. So, we face a humanitarian crisis and it represents a diplomatic barrier. And we’ve been clear that there needs to be renewed efforts by the international community to find the common ground that has eluded the international community for the last 18 months.

Alas, the UN Security Council is divided along cold war lines with the United Kingdom, the United States, and France on one side and Russia and China on the other having twice vetoed a resolution. That offers little comfort to the men, women, and children who are the victims. And, that’s why I think it is incumbent for whoever becomes Secretary of State after the US presidential elections to once again try to engage the Kremlin in direct dialogue about what is the best way forward in Syria because we have a shared interest in avoiding not just a failed state but a regional war by proxy within Syria’s borders, and we need to see whether the opposition outside Syria can come together, find the unity that has so far eluded it and establish a credible plan for transition for what would be involved once Assad departs.

Do you see a possibility for a pan-European defense corps in light of talk about a more centralized political leadership in Brussels?

The most pressing challenge for the European Union right now is the EU economy, not the EU army. There has been some speculation by a report published by some ministers some months back but it was largely irrelevant to the day-to-day concerns of not just my own constituents but to many other European citizens across the European Union who want their leaders at this stage to be focused on resolving the crisis within the Eurozone and to rebuilding the European economy and public finances.

On that note, what do you make of the European Union being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

Listen, I welcomed it. To my father’s generation, his support for the European Union was very straightforward: he didn’t want to see a continent divided again in appalling bloodshed and conflict in a way that it had been twice in 20th century. I think the awarding of the peace prize was an important reminder that beyond the very real and very pressing contemporary challenges that the euro faces, there is a broader story of extraordinary progress on the European continent over recent decades.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER is the Labour Party MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South in Scotland, a seat which he first won almost 20 years ago in 1995. He served as PM Gordon Brown’s Secretary of State for International Development until 2010. Alexander currently is the Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

About Author

Douglas Alexander

Douglas Alexander�is the Labour Party MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South in Scotland, a seat which he first won almost 20 years ago in 1995. He served as PM Gordon Brown�s Secretary of State for International Development until 2010. Alexander currently is the Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.