William Hague – 2008 Conservative Party Conference Speech


I begin by thanking the Prime Minister of Georgia, a democracy which only two months ago came under direct military attack. It is not easy for many western Europeans, separated as we all are by many years from the threat of imminent invasion, to recall how that must feel. But it should not be difficult for all the nations of democratic Europe to say this to the people of Georgia: that your right to live in peace and freedom was long-awaited and hard-won, that your democracy has every right ultimately to join the alliances of the world’s democracies, and that the bullying of you or your neighbours must never be allowed to pay.

In Britain we do not seek quarrels with Russia, but in dealing with any nation that turns its back on the peaceful resolution of disputes, history has taught us that weakness can never be the way. Russia has already paid a price for its flouting of international law in Georgia, in loss of business confidence and diplomatic support. The best chance of avoiding such conflicts in the future is for western nations to show what we have advocated: the strength of united resolve.

We have heard too from Nana Addo, whom I thank not only for speaking to us so well but for demonstrating, with our sister party in Ghana, that there is no reason why the people of African nations cannot enjoy freedom, democracy and prosperity.

The difference between the people of Zimbabwe, who have endured so many years of despotism and dictatorship, and the free people of Ghana comes down to the quality and wisdom of their leaders. It is a lasting reminder to all of us that politics has a purpose and that leaders make a difference, and we all hope that Nana Addo will go on to lead a country that’s an inspiration to its neighbours, shining out across Africa as a beacon of hope and freedom.

We have heard at this conference of the many challenges a Conservative Government will face. In foreign affairs we have the exceptionally strong team of David Lidington, Mark Francois, Keith Simpson and Lord Howell. I say to you very bluntly, that all their talents will be needed, for in foreign policy the challenges may be the most serious for any incoming government since the end of the Second World War.

Last month, David Cameron and I visited our troops in Afghanistan. And make no mistake about this: our soldiers, in their patience in winning over the local population, their stamina in fighting for weeks at a time in extreme conditions of dust and heat, and in doing their job despite equipment shortages which should have been remedied long ago, are still the best of our country and the best military professionals on earth.

We regard progress in Afghanistan, and in the closely-related problems of Pakistan, as the single most urgent focus in foreign affairs for our work as a new government. Failure there would leave the world, ourselves included, much more open to terrorist attack. We will call upon the new President of the United States to intensify the efforts to turn tactical successes into strategic victory, requiring as that does a functioning, non-corrupt government in Kabul, the better co-ordination of international aid and a unified military command. It requires too, allied nations to make, alongside our magnificent soldiers, the military effort necessary for the peace and security of all.

Terrorism, as Pauline Neville-Jones so ably reminded us, remains the greatest single threat to the security of our citizens. That is why, at our meeting with the new President of Pakistan in Islamabad last month, we said that Britain and Pakistan must co-operate closely at all levels to turn people away from terror.

It is vital to conduct an unrelenting global pursuit of terrorist networks and their finances, and to be tougher at home in banning organisations which breed terrorism. But it is also vital, at all times, to uphold our own values of respect for the rule of law, which, after all, is what we are fighting for in the first place. Prisoner abuse scandals in Iraq, however isolated, have done as much damage to the western world as any battlefield defeat. The society we live in, which seeks dignity for all, freedom from arbitrary power, and the promotion of political freedom and human rights, must always be our inspiration, and we betray that inspiration if even for a day we turn into our enemy.

Our liberal conservative beliefs mean we will approach foreign affairs with the strength and purpose to keep our people safe today but also with the humility and patience to make them safer tomorrow. That means learning from mistakes that have indeed been made, for instance in Iraq. We supported the decision to remove Saddam Hussein, but we all know that an occupation of Iraq that was better conceived and implemented could have spared so many the agony and bloodshed of the last five years. I call again on ministers to establish a full privy council inquiry into the origins and conduct of the war so that all can learn from its mistakes and apply the lessons as soon as possible, and I make it clear today that if they do not establish such an inquiry, one of the first acts of a Conservative Government will be to do so.

Our combination of strength with patience means too the freshening and deepening of our alliances. Alongside our partnership with the people of Pakistan, we have called for an intensified special relationship between Britain and India, by far the world’s largest democracy. We have established constructive working relationships with China, a country with which we have many differences but whose partnership will be essential in tackling climate change and nuclear proliferation. And we have argued for an elevation of our political, financial and cultural links with the many friendly Muslim nations of the Middle East, among them the fastest-growing centres of economic activity and wealth on the globe.

And we will refresh too our most important alliance of all, with the United States of America. David Cameron has struck up an excellent relationship with both John McCain and Barack Obama. Indeed, it his ability to impart a frank message within a warm relationship which has added to my conviction that he is the man to lead our country. We have said our relations with America will be solid but not slavish, and every bit of that solidity, and that frankness, will be necessary to push forward a peace in the Middle East which gives real statehood for Palestinians alongside real security for the people of Israel, and above all to face up to the danger which may well within a decade take over from terrorism as the prime threat to free people: the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Iran’s defiance of the UN Security Council and evident intention to develop nuclear capability could ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and leave the non-proliferation treaty, the cornerstone of world security for 40 years, in ruins. Unless Iran responds positively in the coming weeks to the latest proposals, we call for EU nations to adopt progressively tougher measures against Iran, including a denial of access to Europe’s financial system and a ban on new investment in Iranian oil and gas fields.

And at the same time we call on our Government, ahead of the crucial review conference of the non-proliferation treaty in 2010, to build now the international consensus to make far harder the illicit production of nuclear weapons and the trading of their components. This, looking ahead, is one of the great global challenges, a challenge to which the next Conservative Government will rise.

Yet as we face this and other challenges, we will find on coming to office that many of the world’s key institutions are struggling or out of date. That is why we advocate reform of NATO, to share more equitably the costs and risks of mutual defence, and reform of the UN Security Council to reflect the 21st century instead of the middle of the 20th. And it is also why we call on the European Union to lead the way in responding to global competition, global warming and global poverty, the agenda of today, rather than building more centralised power in Brussels, which is the agenda of the past.

We believe in a Europe where nations can work together to achieve goals they cannot attain on their own. We are proud of the progress the EU has made in widening the freedom to do business, to travel and to find work. We applaud the agreement on climate change which EU nations must now implement. We are firm in our view that it is EU membership or its prospect that has helped to entrench democracy in many nations of central and eastern Europe, and that prospect must be there for people across the Balkans, the Ukraine, Turkey, and indeed Georgia if they wish to attain it.

But we are equally clear that while all this work requires will and determination, none of it requires more centralised power. We are clear too that all three political parties said at the last election that the treaty aimed at creating more centralised power, once called a constitution and now the treaty of Lisbon, would be subject to a referendum of the people of Britain.

Few events in recent years have been more revealing about the duplicitous nature of the Labour Government, or more corrosive of public trust in the entire political process, than the spectacle of Labour MPs trooping through the lobbies to deny the referendum they promised to the people, while Liberal Democrat MPs summoned up the courage to turn up and abstain.

Only the Conservative Party has remained true to the commitment to a referendum. We congratulate the people of the Irish Republic on having the courage to vote no to a treaty they did not want. In doing so they spoke for many millions across Europe who were denied any vote of their own. That result should be respected and we deplore the fact that Gordon Brown and David Miliband went ahead with British ratification despite the Irish vote, conniving in the attempt to bully the Irish into voting again. How undemocratic it would be if the people of Ireland were made to vote twice when the people of Britain have been denied the chance even to vote once.

Our position rests on the basic truth that in a democracy, lasting political institutions cannot be built without popular consent. If in the end this treaty is ratified, by all 27 nations of the EU, then clearly it would lack democratic legitimacy here in Britain, political integration would have gone too far, and we would set out at that point the consequences of that and how we would intend to proceed.

But we say to the Irish people – you are not alone, and if a Conservative Government takes office while the Lisbon Treaty remains unratified by Ireland or any other nation, we will hold the referendum the British people want and deserve and we will recommend as their government that they vote no.

And in next year’s European elections, we will campaign for that referendum and for the open, free enterprise Europe we believe in, and we will form in the next European Parliament a new group of like-minded parties to campaign for that for many years to come.

This then, is the Conservative approach, learning from the past but always preparing for the future; extending our alliances and standing by our friends; making the most of the world’s opportunities and seeking to pre-empt its great dangers; showing the patience to understand others but placing Britain, with our special links to America, Europe and Commonwealth, at the forefront of world affairs. It is an essential part of our preparation for government; a task, which now, we are ready, to take on once again.