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Lord Alderdice: My Lords, the great wealth of your Lordships' House is to be found in the extraordinary breadth and depth of experience which is brought to debates by its Members. It was never better exemplified than by my three predecessors today: the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, to whom we owe the conduct of the debate; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon; and the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. I speak not only for myself but also for my colleagues on these Benches when I say that it is a delight
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to hear him in this Chamber and to be able to look forward to many more illuminating contributions out of his experience and understanding of wider world affairs and the place of our country in them.
The terms of the debate were set out not only in the wording of the Motion but also in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond. He said that this was an opportunity to pull back from the immediacy of some of the particular and serious problems before us and to take a wide-angle lens to our conduct of foreign affairs and foreign policy. Surely the purpose of a foreign policy is summed up in three simple notions. First, it is to defend the welfare of the citizens of our country from external threats and from any internal threats consequent on them. Secondly, it is to facilitate citizens and our private, public and national institutions in promoting their legitimate interestseconomic, social, cultural or otherwise. Thirdly, it is to maintain and benefit the good name of the country. That assists all of us, our citizens and our public institutions, in achieving all those things.
There can be little doubt that these are appropriate and reasonable aims. The eight strategic policy priorities set down by the Foreign Office sum them up and are perhaps a little wider. But the problem is whether any particular policy delivers what it sets out to do. Looking back over the past four years, it seems that the citizens of this country are not now more secure whether at homeeven within the confines of the Palace of Westminster, as we were recently remindedor travelling abroad.
In conducting our affairseconomic, social, cultural, educational or otherwisewe are not better off than we were four years ago. Many parts of the world are more antagonistic towards us, our country and our citizens. Sadly, I fear that the good name of our country is not held in such high esteem as it was some years ago. Therefore, it is not a question of whether the aims of policy priorities are good, but whether they deliver what they set out to deliver.
This is lamentable. I use the word cautiously but with emphasis because the deterioration in our world is serious and could well get worse. Many of the great strengths of this country have been set to one side. The history of moving from an imperial past to a commonwealth of nations is remarkable. We often forget how remarkable, virtually singular, the achievement is. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements in foreign policy over the past century is that a once imperial power was able to have such extraordinarily good, positive and onward-looking relations with former colonies.
The development of the European Union, to which we have, perhaps in a slightly hiccupping fashion, made a contribution, is hugely important. From a parochial point of view, even in the past few years the contribution to peace around the world, particularly in Northern Ireland, has been a success, even if it has not completely delivered. It is a positive thing. The situation is better than it was.
The standing of our judicial, journalistic and other institutions around the world was high but now it is not so high. Why is that? It seems to me that it is because we have forgotten some of the lessons. The first is that foreign policy is not a short-term issue; it is a long-term matter that
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requires sticking with one's approach through the ups and downs. There is a great tendency to overreact to immediate events and not to understand that the content of immediate events is far less important than the process of one's approach to dealing with the long-term issues.
Whether it was the development of the Commonwealth, the building of the European Union or peace processes in places such as South Africa and Northern Ireland, or the development of our constitution and our courts and the whole ethos of our community, none came about by short-term reaction; they came about by long-term, slow, thoughtful and consistent building, characterised by integrity and respect.
It seems to me that if we are to see success in the avowed aims that we set down in terms of policy priorities, we must be prepared to adhere to, and stick with, an approach to foreign policy characterised by consistency in the long term, respect in all our dealings and an integrity that shines through. I say in passing that we should not jump to the whim of a current administration, even when it is that of a long-term friendly country. Let us not be mistaken: many of our American colleagues do not feel that the current administration is following American interests. Precision and measurability of policy priorities is very fashionable, but it is far less important than wisdom in implementing the priorities.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House that this is a four-hour time-limited debate. That is beyond the control of me or anyone else. Clearly, if everyone runs beyond the limit of six minutes per speaker, there will be very little time left for the later speakers. That is not a criticism of anyone; it is a statement of arithmetic.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, on behalf of my colleagues, I join everyone in this House in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, on a remarkable maiden speech. The combination of wit and wisdom, candour and expertise in six minutes meant that its impact was brilliantly focused. If he is able to give some of us on these Benches a few tips in creating sermons, we should be very glad to hear from him. I look forward very much to learning a great deal from the noble Lord in the years ahead and, again, I thank him most warmly.
In the 1970s, I worked as religious education adviser in the diocese of Hereford, which meant that I was invited to schools to talk to sixth-formers. I was invited to a school in Telford, where the title of my talk, which was given to me by the school, was "This Man believes in God", the implication being that youngsters had better take a careful look at this particular specimen because I was doomed to die. I was a kind of theological and anthropological dodo.
Noble Lords will be aware that, far from dying out, religious belief seems to have become an increasingly dominant element in our world. No strategy concerning priorities in foreign policy can be described as adequate if it fails to take seriously religious elements within both situations where there is conflict and those where peace is being created.
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As noble Lords will know, there are two distinct elements within interfaith activity. The first is dialogue between the faiths themselves. I take this opportunity to thank particular heroes in that field in this country. I think, for example, of Brian Pearce of the Inter Faith Network and Sister Margaret Shepherd and her colleagues at the Council of Christians and Jews. I now declare an interest: I am the national chairman of that council. It is a huge privilege because I am acutely aware of the unsung work that goes on in combating racism and increasing interfaith understanding on a daily basis.
CCJ and similar organisations in this country are entirely dependent for their work upon voluntary, charitable giving. But if interfaith dialogue is a major contributor to social cohesion in this country, which it is, is it not possible for more government help to be given in supporting our work?
Secondly, just as there is a need for dialogue between the faiths, so there is also a need for dialogue between the faiths and government. The instruments of that kind of dialogue at a national and regional level are at an early and unformed stage. But those mechanisms, too, will need significant government resource if they are to be effective.
between EU institutions and the faiths. Whatever one thinks about that constitutionwhether one is for or against itthe fact that Article 51 exists in draft form is evidence of the seriousness with which all European countries are taking religion in the 21st century.
As a nation, we have a huge amount to be proud of in the way in which interfaith understanding has been created over many decadesin schools, hospitals and the voluntary sectorand, in truth, as a nation we have much good practice to share with European partners.
I say all that about inter-religious and interfaith dialogue in this important debate about foreign policy because of the role that religions play in shaping our world. The religions that are talking to each other in the United Kingdom are the very same religions that are found elsewhere in the world. The religions that need to have dialogue with the Government in this country are the same religions which spread across the globe. Creating understanding in the United Kingdom is not separate from foreign policy; it should be seen as an integral and necessary part of it. If we can create understanding here, we may be able to model in this country ways of interacting between faiths and between faiths and government which can be developed elsewhere.
At a practical level, it would be very goodperhaps this already happensif officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could increase their dialogue with other parts of the government machinery, especially with the Home Office, in order to create a coherent, intelligent and well researched map of interfaith activity. Such a map would show not only what is going on in the United Kingdom, of which there is a great deal, but what is
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going on in Europe. Such a mapping exercise could then provide the foundation for a far more proactive stance, encouraging good interfaith relationships across Europe and the world and good faith/government dialogue in the United Kingdom, Europe and, again, across the world.
The creation of understanding is the key to a peaceful world. It is my belief that religions must be a part of that processa process which tries to create a world free of conflict. Of course, I recognise that it is a huge task, but if we who express our faith, whatever that may be, can play a significant role in that process and be resourced to do so, I believe that the benefits could be absolutely enormous.
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