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Lib Dem conference: What’s Britain’s role in the world?

The party mood

The first of the big three party conferences took place this week when the Liberal Democrats met in Birmingham. The general mood of the party was surprisingly upbeat.

And while the conference proceedings overall weren’t exactly a thrill a minute, it was interesting to note that the main theme was continued support for the coalition – with a generous helping of Tory-bashing.

Vince Cable, Tim Farron and many others made jokes or outright criticisms of their partners in government. Even the conference slogan – ‘in government, on your side’ – seemed to imply that the Conservatives were not.

Generally, the feeling from the podium was “things may be bad, but without us they would be worse.” And it wasn’t until Nick Clegg’s speech as leader on the final day that Labour even got a look-in.

Our fringe

The Save the Children international fringe on Tuesday lunchtime was a panel debate entitled ‘In the Nation’s Interest: What is Britain’s role in shaping the 21st Century for the greater good?’.

David Rennie, Political Editor of the Economist, questioned Jeremy Browne MP, Foreign Office Minister; Baroness Shirley Williams; Malcolm Bruce MP, chair of the International Development Select Committee; Dr Alex Vines of Chatham House; and our very own Bernie Aryeetey on matters of development, defence and foreign policy.

The event was packed and standing room only. We were even filmed by BBC News, who were interested in what Baroness Williams might say after her comments earlier in the day on NHS reform.

The Lib Dems and development

Someone who popped up at a few other development related events was Martin Horwood MP, chair of the newly created Liberal Democrat international affairs committee.

He had a lot of praise for Andrew Mitchell in general, but along with the by-now-expected disparaging comments about “swivel-eyed Tory backbenchers”, he expressed regret that there were no Lib Dem ministers in the Departmentfor International Development (DFID).

Despite believing the development secretary to have “his heart in the right place” he bemoaned some of his “Tory baggage”, including a distrust of NGOs that Horwood thought many Conservative politicians shared.

He was more enthusiastic about the Conservative emphasis of the role of the private sector, and thought the refocusing of DFID on value for money has been a painful but beneficial process.

Nutrition on the agenda

Save the Children’s upcoming campaign focus on nutrition continues to seem very timely. As well as the East Africa crisis pushing the issue up everyone’s agenda, it’s close to the heart of several key influencers, such as David Hall-Matthews, who wrote the Lib Dem policy paper on development that was launched at last year’s conference.

He gave a compelling presentation at the Oxfam GROW campaign launch. He said that he would like the Lib Dems to join the push on government, and on Mitchell in particular, to repeat the success of GAVI with a ‘golden moment’ in 2012 around food security.

Malcolm Bruce continued to voice his own distinct opinions on DFID policy. At last year’s conference he sponsored an amendment in favour of retaining aid to both India and China. This year he came out strongly against the removal of aid from Burundi that was announced as part of the Bilateral Aid Review.

He described Burundi as a very poor state at risk of falling into conflict, that was now being “abandoned” by the UK, something he described as a “bad decision”. As well as an interesting window into his take on development, it shows the correlation between Bruce’s concerns and the inquiries his Select Committee undertakes – last year into the future of DFID’s programme in India, and this summer into the removal of aid from Burundi.

Ashdown the internationalist

Paddy Ashdown was announced to the plenary hall with the phrase “and anyone who needs to be told who he is, is at the wrong conference.” Yes, who could forget Paddy Ashdown, enjoying an invigorated role within the development community due to his recent much-praised chairing of the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review.

Ashdown did the rounds of fringes and spoke in the international affairs section in the conference hall. He stressed the internationalist heritage of the Liberal Democrat Party, saying he felt the party was currently “missing a trick” by not giving these issues enough attention.

Ashdown is very keen on international regulation and the consequences of institutions such as the International Criminal Court in the Hague, believing if thoroughly applied they can make a real difference to conflicts around the world. He also sees the intervention of Libya (which was nowhere at conference criticised) as the real-world application of the Responsibility to Protect initiative.

What’s next?

We are now making final preparations for our trip to Liverpool for the Labour Party Conference. Read about our up-coming fringe events.

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