The foreign policy record of consecutive Tory-led governments over the past decade is a shameful one

Mayer Wakefield


The aftermath of the boming of an alleged Saudi-UAE air strike on a school bus in Northern Yemen. Just weeks later, more British arms sales were approved to Saudi Arabia.


Less than a year had elapsed on thier time in office before the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government decided to intervene to disastrous effect in Libya. Initially presented as ‘humanitarian intervention’ it is now looked upon as one of the most colossal failings in post-war British foreign policy. Even Barack Obama recognises it as his ‘biggest mistake’ in office.

Not so for David Cameron. His recent autobiography showed little to no remorse for his integral role in the plunder of what was one of Africa’s most prosperous nations. In his book he stressed that “we had to get the generals out of their Iraq and Afghanistan mindset”, a clear indication that the lessons of those failures had not even been recognised, let alone learnt.

Since the intervention Libya has not enjoyed a single day of peace and is widely recognised as a ‘failed state’. Over 11,000 violent deaths have been recorded since 2011 and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.

Boris Johnson saw this vast number of deaths as a good punch line for a joke at a Conservative Party fringe meeting back in 2017 whilst he was Foreign Secretary. He said that the city of Sirte could be the new Dubai and to do so “all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away”. The fact Johnson refused to apologise and remained in his office is symptomatic of the Conservatives approach to its Libya intervention on all fronts – ruthlessly dismissive.


David Cameron’s plan to join US in military action against the Syrian government was thwarted in August 2013 as the aftershocks of the Iraq War and the huge outcry against it were finally felt in Parliament. The Conservative pro-intervention motion was defeated by 285-272.  The Labour leader of the time, Ed Miliband, commented that ‘people want us to learn the lesson of Iraq’.

Despite this significant setback, no lessons were learnt by the Tories, who capitalised on public outrage against the crimes committed by ISIS to intervene in the Syrian civil war. Although some covert missions were flown before the vote, bombing missions and strikes were significantly stepped up after the vote on 2nd December 2015.

Just days later the then Chancellor, George Osborne, told the Council on Foreign Relations that:

“Britain has got its mojo back and we are going to be with you as we reassert Western values, confident that our best days lie ahead. It is for me a source of real pride that actually a couple of years later the House of Commons has voted by a big majority to take part in the action already being directed against this terrorist organisation Isis or Daesh in Syria.”

You can tell from this quote alone that the intervention was less about protecting those under threat in Syria and more about the resurrecting the imperial ambitions of those in government.

According to Drone Wars UK, the Royal Air Force has conducted 4,243 missions inside Syria, launching 1,104 weapons from the skies of the war-torn nation as of September 2019. The RAF still maintain the absurd claim that just one civilian has died but have disclosed that 1,019 ‘enemy fighters’ have died and 67 have been hurt as a result of these airstrikes.

Syria is still in the midst of a horrendous civil war and although the western powers claim that ISIS has been defeated, the misery and resentment that will have been fostered by these years of bombing will live on for decades.


Not content with having watched from the opposition benches while New Labour joined George Bush in the plunder of Iraq, Cameron and co fancied a piece of the action for themselves.

Prior to Parliament giving the go ahead for the bombing of Syria, Operation Shader had already begun in Iraq in September 2014. Since then, according to Drone Wars, the RAF has launched 3,111 weapons over the country Bush and Blair invaded back in 2003. 2,994 ‘enemy fighters’ have been killed in the country and 235 wounded. So much for ending the war in Iraq.

In February 2018, the cost of the bombing in Iraq and neighbouring Syria was estimated to have reached £1.75 billion. To put that in context the annual budget for the entire Environment Agency in 2018/9 was £1.4 billion.

Operation Shader continues despite the defeat of ISIS in March of this year, raising many questions about the true intentions of these airstrikes. The fact remains that true peace will never be brought about through bombing and that after 16 years of unending devastation in Iraq it is time we leave the country to forge its own future.

The War in Yemen and Support for Saudi Arabia

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UK is one that has been maintained throughout the post-war period, but rarely has it enjoyed such a fruitful period as in the last four years. The fact that the Saudi war in Yemen has been ongoing over this period is obviously no coincidence.

At the outset of the war, the then defence secretary Philip Hammond pledged: “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.” Since then, the Tories have sold at least £5.3 billion worth of fighter jets, bombs and missiles to the regime.

The attacks that these weapons have been used in has resulted in what the UN has called “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”, with 14 million people at risk of starvation and repeated outbreaks of diseases like cholera.

Despite the mounting evidence of Saudi war crimes and horrific incidents such as the bombing of a bus which killed forty schoolboys, the Conservatives, under Theresa May continued to be outspoken facilitators of Mohammad bin Salman’s war.

Prime Ministerial candidate Boris Johnson supported further arms sales to the Saudi regime just ‘days after an airstrike on a potato factory in the country had killed 14 people’ in 2016.

Not content with just supplying the weapons, Johnson also supported the deployment of British troops to Yemen in 2018, in a plan to secure the port of Hodeidah that was later scrapped. Downing Street officials said earlier this year, once the story had been uncovered and Johnson’s feet under the table at No. 10, that that option “remains very much on the table”.


This year was the 18th anniversary of Britain’s engagement in Afghanistan and even after all the misery that the US-UK-NATO intervention has caused, there are still 1,100 British troops in this war-ravaged country. This includes 440 additional troops that were deployed in 2018 by Theresa May in a ‘non-combat capacity’. The occupation of Afghanistan will continue to go unquestioned with continuing Tory rule.


The UK’s collaboration with the Bahraini dictatorship stretches back centuries but recent years have seen increasingly closer ties. The brutal clampdown on Bahraini protests in 2011 was endorsed by David Cameron when he invited the Crown Prince to Downing Street in May of that year. In April 2018 the UK opened in first naval base ‘East of Suez’ since the end of World War 2 in Bahrain as part of its Global Britain strategy to the initial cost of £40 million.

Arms Sales: Israel, Turkey and Beyond

Under the Conservatives Britain has become the 2nd biggest arms dealer in the world. Shockingly, Britain has sold arms to 22 out of the 30 countries on the Government’s own human rights watch list since 2010. Yes, this may have begun before the Tories entered office, but the Tories have done everything possible to enlarge British companies’ share in the arms trade. Aside from its primary customer, Saudi Arabia, other particularly nefarious benefactors of Britain’s growing arms trade include Israel, Turkey and Egypt.

Since 2017, the UK government has granted more than £380 million worth of licences for the export of arms and military technology to Israel to maintain its brutal oppression of the Palestinian people. Similarly, in Turkey, President Erdogan’s regime has been the recipient of over £1.1 billion of UK-made arms for his authoritarian domestic agenda and increasingly offensive foreign policy – felt principally by the Kurdish people of North Eastern Syria. It’s the same story in Egypt where ruthless internal repression has been legitimised by the sale of British machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns and ammunition to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.

These are just three examples of the type of regimes that the Tories consider fit for business. But it’s not just about the sale of military hardware; what these deals offer is political legitimacy. They serve as a green light for the despicable behaviour of the likes of Netanyahu and Al-Sisi, allowing them to carry out their oppression without fear of criticism from the British government. A five-year term of a Boris Johnson led government promises more of the same and potentially worse.

Historical Abuses

A recent investigation by Panorama and the Sunday Times has once again brought to light the covering up of alleged war crimes by British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the torture and the murder of children. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) was set up in 2010 to investigate such allegations and after numerous delays was eventually shut down in 2017 by then Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon. This was seemingly the final chapter in continued attempts by the Tories to bring an end to such investigations.

Controversies around the IHAT team should not be allowed to silence calls for justice for those who were at the sharp end of the alleged brutal abuse. With both occupations still ongoing these are as much current abuses as historical ones.

Current Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said back in November “that [what] we’re quite rightly doing is making sure spurious claims or claims without evidence don’t lead to the shadow of suspicion”. The fact is that if these claims were indeed ‘spurious’ the government should allow them to be properly investigated which would be the only real way to remove the justified ‘cloud of suspicion’ hanging over the MOD.

Labour’s manifesto promises to “establish a judge-led inquiry into our country’s alleged complicity in rendition and torture, and the operation of secret courts”. This is nothing less than the victims of these alleged abuses and their families deserve.

Forging A Different Path

The foreign policy record of consecutive Tory-led governments over the past decade is a shameful one. Bombing campaigns, continuing dead-end occupations, brazen arms dealing with human rights abusers and political support for many of the most toxic regimes on earth continue to characterise Britain’s role in the world.

Although the Labour manifesto has major black spots – particularly with regard to Trident, NATO and arms manufacturing – it does point to a decisive break with the naked brutality of British foreign policy that has been so devastating for millions of people around the globe in 21st century.

A clear recognition of our litany of failed recent military interventions will be supplemented by the implementation of a War Powers Act and an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy. Putting peace as a priority with straight-forward policies such as the immediate end of arms sales to the likes of Saudi Arabia and Israel will not only save lives but send a political signal that Britain is no longer a supporter of flagrant warmongers.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn, one of just nine Labour MP’s to vote against the bombing campaign in Libya in 2011, will also be a sign to the globe that the people of the UK want an end to the ‘bomb first, talk later’ approach our governments have repeatedly followed in previous decades. No more blood and rubble, we want peace and justice.

06 Dec 2019 by Mayer Wakefield

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