Ryan Henson is Chief Executive of the Coalition for Global Prosperity.
Just four years after entering Parliament, Rishi Sunak became Chancellor and Claire Coutinho became Energy Secretary. Seven years after becoming MPs, James Cleverly and Suella Braverman became Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary, respectively. Contrast this with the experience of John Major or Ken Clarke who each spent a decade climbing the ranks before holding a Great Office of State.
The era of the long Parliamentary apprenticeship, during which a newly elected MP might hone their speechmaking or develop policy ideas, appears to be over. At the same time the demands placed on an MP or Minister grow continually. Elected officials are expected to be contactable seven days a week via email, social media, and 24-hour news.
If reporting on recent Conservative Parliamentary selections is correct, then an aspiring Conservative MP candidate must first and foremost be a local champion, more interested in what is happening on their local council, than what is happening in the Middle East. It is a world Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher would struggle to recognise.
Local knowledge is important. If an aspiring Parliamentarian does not become an authority on their local area, they cannot expect to fully represent their constituents. But if Tory Parliamentarians do not know or are not interested in what is happening overseas, it will be left to others to make the big decisions that shape our world, and by extension, our United Kingdom.
The world’s sixth-largest economy cannot afford to be isolated. We need our future trade, defence, development, and foreign ministers – and the MPs who hold them to account – to know what they are talking about, for the UK to keep punching above its weight.
Earlier this year the Coalition for Global Prosperity, a not-for-profit campaign group and think tank, set out to equip the next generation of Parliamentary candidates with a basic knowledge of defence, diplomacy, and development. We invited a group of cross-party candidates, with an emphasis on Conservatives.
According to polling, they are less likely to support issues like overseas aid spending. They attend two residential retreats, and for some, an overseas visit, to learn more about what the UK does on the world stage, and why it matters.
Speakers included the former head of MI6, the past director of GCHQ, a former National Security Advisor, a past United Nations Under-Secretary-General, experts on China and Africa, and Ruth Davidson, Peter Mandelson, and the Attorney General. Participants directly challenged past practitioners, absorbing the successes, the defeats, and the lessons learned from decades of diplomacy, defence, and development work.
Unless a candidate attended a prestigious fee-paying school, or went to a top university, I cannot think of anywhere else an aspiring Parliamentarian might have an opportunity to ask a former head of the Secret Intelligence Service about the rise of China, ask a former top UN diplomat about the UK’s relationship with countries in Africa, or a National Security Advisor about how past Prime Minister’s have chaired the National Security Council in moments of grave crisis.
In Parliaments where MPs are retiring far earlier than their predecessors, the sharing of institutional knowledge has become more and more important.A bonus of bringing together Conservative and Labour candidates was that both sides quickly realised that foreign policy, while rightly political, need not always be party-political.
As the Prime Minister and Sir Keir Starmer have shown, confronting Putin after Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and standing in solidarity with the brave people of Israel against the evil of Hamas, are issues that unite all decent people in politics, regardless of party affiliation.
In July we were able to take 11 of the candidates overseas to visit Jordan. The UK is closer to Jordan than any other Arab nation, signing a post-Brexit trade deal in May 2021, and the two countries worked together to defeat Daesh in 2017.
Jordan shelters approximately 700,000 Syrian, and 2 million Palestinian, refugees in a country with a population of just 11 million people. Common sense suggests it would be far preferable for refugees to remain in Jordan than forced to make their way to Europe. That’s where the UK’s diplomatic, defence, and development work comes in.
Our delegation of candidates met refugees, and Jordan’s Senate Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss and debate the diplomatic, defence, and development ties that bind our two nations. Whenever the group of candidates enter Parliament, they will have a head start on their peers from other national Parliaments when it comes to understanding the politics of the Middle East, and how diplomacy works in practice. These are skills that will be even more important after the awful terrorist attacks against Israel.
The years ahead will test the next generation of MPs. Combatting the existential threat of climate change, facing down the rise of authoritarian and revisionist states such as China, Russia, and Iran, and continuing to manage the UK’s future away from the European Union, all while forging long-term partnerships with emerging powers in Asia and Africa, will keep our new MPs busy. It is right that they should have the knowledge to hit the ground running.
We called it the Future Leaders Programme for a reason. The challenges the world faces don’t lend themselves to fence-sitters. The choice between spending at home and spending overseas, while a false one, will nevertheless demand hard decisions.
It will take Parliamentarians of vision, who are prepared to look beyond what is immediately in front of them, and who possess the courage of their convictions, to make sure we get them right. In short, it will take leadership.