David Steel: Robin put ethics on the map

In the developing world you can buy an AK-47 for $10. This fuels thuggery and even civil wars on a grand scale

What he called for was "an ethical dimension to foreign policy". It could be argued that his own greatest contribution to that came not during his period as Foreign Secretary, but in his later resignation from the Blair Cabinet over the decision to back the Bush invasion of Iraq rather than allowing the UN Security Council to finalise the search for WMD and determine future action against Saddam Hussein.

Robin became the recognised focal point for all who shared his judgement, because he left without rancour and in all his subsequent statements in the matter refrained from personal attacks on the Prime Minister. As Gordon Brown said in his eulogy he earned the respect not only of those who agreed with him but of those who thought his stance was wrong.

Who is left capable of taking over the mantle of the ethical dimension now that he is gone? Not, I fear, the Blair/Straw axis whose credibility is destroyed over their ties with their Bush/Rumsfeld counterpart. There are, of course, peers of international experience - Frank Judd, Donald Anderson and notably Patrick Wright, the former head of the FCO who speaks from the crossbenches. But it is the House of Commons that counts. Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell are too glibly written off as seeking advantage as an opposition party, when in fact the stance they took at the outset of the Iraq war was both risky and right. They have deserved to be listened to with respect. One minister who resigned with Robin Cook was John Denham who has been quietly shunted off to chair the Home Affairs Select Committee, but whom I tip as a man to watch.

I would like to think that we can look forward to more robust activity from the select committees on foreign affairs and international development under their new chairmen, Michael Gapes (Labour) and Malcolm Bruce (Lib Dem). I can think of at least four areas where their attention is required.

First, the Middle East peace process: we should insist on a more evenhanded approach in the Israel/Palestine issue. Our response to the illegal routing of the security wall has been pathetic, and we need to strengthen moderate Palestinian leaders against the terrorists. Our double standard on possession of nuclear weapons by Israel and Iran is blatant.

Then there is poverty. While Tony Blair and Gordon Brown earned justified praise on African poverty questions, the Royal African Society has issued a cautionary appeal to world leaders: "Signing cheques for debt relief or aid is one thing. Changing laws and systems is more difficult." We need to concentrate our foreign policy in Africa on helping to establish proper elections, independent judiciary, and effective parliamentary machinery to call ministers to account.

Furthermore, the world trade in small arms is a scandal. In many cities in the developing world you can buy an AK-47 for around $10. This fuels thuggery and even civil wars on a grand scale, and the international community has done little about it. We also glory in our export of more expensive arms to poverty-stricken governments.

Finally, coming down the track is the debate on replacing our "independent" Trident submarine nuclear deterrent. Post-Cold War this is an example of expensive potential nuclear proliferation. If we must keep an independent nuclear facility, though that itself should be questioned, much cheaper options of aircraft-carrying cruise missiles are available.

You don't have to look far for other cases in which the "ethical dimension" is sadly wanting. Robin's challenge is still there.

Lord Steel of Aikwood was leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 to 1988

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