Emily Thornberry speaking at Labour Party Conference
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Conference, it’s great to be back here in Brighton, and to be frank, it’s great to be here at all.
When I got knocked off my bike by a black cab in July, I was lying in the gutter near Westminster Central Hall after my head had crashed into the pavement, and my life was flashing before my eyes.
On which note I’ll say incidentally: don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. There were a couple of moments from my youth I’d forgotten about, where I thought: ‘Oh blimey, that was fun!’ And it wasn’t running through fields of wheat!
But of course, I then had the wonderful NHS paramedics coming to my aid and they did the standard questions they always do to test if you’re suffering from a serious head injury.
And dazed as I was, I got through: ‘What day is it?’ Friday. And ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ Two. But when they got to ‘Who’s the Prime Minister?’ I said: ‘Guys, you’d better take me to hospital. For some reason, I think it’s Boris Johnson’.
Because, conference, I’ve seen Boris Johnson up close. Not as up close as lots of other women, thank goodness. But I shadowed him for the entire two years he was Foreign Secretary, his only ministerial position before this one.
And in my entire time in Parliament, I have never shadowed anyone so lazy and incompetent, so deceitful and reckless, so utterly unsuited to the job of Prime Minister.
And yet this is where we are. Boris Johnson in charge, attempting to drive our country off a cliff, just as soon as he can work out which pedal is the accelerator. But we will not let it happen.
As Brighton’s Peter Kyle has said, we must fight with every fibre of our beings to say between now and October 31, and afterwards if there is a General Election, that any terms of departure, from any government, must go back to the British public for the final say. They should have the option to Remain, and I for one will be out there campaigning to Remain.
Because conference, we are an internationalist party. Our party, our unions, and our members have always believed that we are not just stronger as part of an international movement, but that we have a responsibility to lead that international movement.
Indeed, it was Nelson Mandela who said on this very stage nineteen years ago this week that Labour’s historic mission as a party is to be the keepers of our brothers and sisters around the world.
And I am proud to stand here today, speaking on behalf of Nia Griffith and Dan Carden, on behalf of my wonderful Shadow Foreign Office team – Liz McInnes, Khalid Mahmood, Helen Goodman, Fabian Hamilton, Ray Collins and my PPS Alex Sobel – all of us speaking in support of Jeremy Corbyn, my friend, my neighbour and our next Prime Minister.
And I want to salute Nia and her team – Wayne David, Gerald Jones and Denis Tunicliffe – for the work that they have done to uphold our pledges to NATO, to fight for our steel industry and stop military outsourcing, to guarantee our armed forces get fair pay, decent housing, better support for their children, and a proper say in how the forces are run.
And to ensure that our veterans are not sleeping in the streets but receiving free education, new career opportunities, and proper help with mental health issues. Because Boris Johnson can wrap himself in as many flags as he wants, but true patriotism is standing up for our soldiers and veterans, and that is what Nia and her team do every day.
And I want to salute Dan Carden and his team as well – Preet Gill, Alex Norris and the great multi-tasker Ray Collins – for continuing the work of our brilliant friend, Kate Osamor, and standing up for the wonderful charities, including the RNLI, who understand that a life is a life – whoever they are, and dedicate themselves to helping the most vulnerable people abroad, even when the right-wing media criticises them for doing so.
And under Dan’s leadership, we will ensure that the overseas aid budget is used to support those charities, to support the poorest people in the world, including through a new Unit of Public Services within DFID, which will help developing countries stand on their own two feet, strengthen their infrastructure, healthcare and education, and help governments in those countries give their citizens the public services they need.
Because just as Labour will build a Britain that works for the many not the few, we must do the same overseas. And as Dan has made clear, we will maintain our pledges on spending, continue to pursue solidarity and global justice, and keep up our fight against global poverty, inequality, and most importantly, climate-change.
Because when we think about Nelson Mandela’s instruction to us to be the keepers of our brothers and sisters across the world, we need to imagine what that great old man would be saying to us today – the same thing a great young woman named Greta Thunberg has been saying to the world for months – which is first and foremost, that we must be the keepers of our planet.
And we must dedicate ourselves not just to inspire a Green Industrial Revolution in this country, but to work with every single country in this world to help them harvest the clean energy naturally available to them – solar power, wind power, tidal power or hydro power – and let every country become a world leader and a job-creator in the technology that best suits them.
Back in February, I called this ‘The Globalisation of the Green New Deal’, so that not just Britain but every country can become a zero-carbon economy. And I believe it is our historic mission in this century to lead that effort and lead that fight, before we reach the point of no return.
And let’s be clear, comrades, we desperately need that leadership in a world, that country-by-country – election-by-election, is being consumed by the resurgence of so-called ‘strongman politics’.
Putin killing with impunity from Syria to Salisbury. Maduro plunging Venezuela into ever-deeper division and misery. Bolsonaro hailing Brazil’s military junta as a golden age. Duterte boasting about killing Filipino street children. Netanyahu trying to turn Israel into an apartheid state. Khamenei jailing innocent women in Iran as diplomatic bargaining chips. Assad, Erodgan, Orban, Sisi – the list goes on and on.
And wherever we see these ‘strongman’ politicians, we see the same patterns coming up: a nationalism that trades in lies, hatred and fear; a nationalism not defined by love of their country and all its people, but by the demonisation of outsiders, and an attempt to divide their country’s population into ‘us’ and ‘them’, where ‘them’ can be anyone – immigrants, minorities, the LGBT+ community – or the politicians and journalists who stand up for them.
And it should shame us all in this country that these issues are all too prevalent in our own Commonwealth of Nations.
How can it be that we have a Commonwealth member, India, revoking 70 years of constitutional protections for the Kashmiri people? How can it be that we have a Commonwealth member, Cameroon, slaughtering babies as part of their war on the Anglophone community?
And how can it be, conference that we have a Commonwealth member, Brunei, passing laws to stone same-sex couples to death, and in none of these cases, does the Commonwealth say a single word of collective criticism?
But conference, is it any wonder we are seeing this rise in ‘strongman’ politics when the daddy of them all – their hero, their mentor, their friend – is sitting in the White House: the so-called leader of the free world, Donald Trump.
Well I just ask you, conference: How can you lead a free world when you are locking toddlers in cages? How can you lead a free world when you’re trying to take away the freedom of women to control their own bodies? And how can you lead a free world when you are actively supporting the suppression and annexation of Palestine?
Donald Trump is not the leader of the free world. He is the role model, the guiding light, for all those ‘strongman’ politicians around the world who are trying to tear freedom apart.
And no-one has taken more inspiration from him than the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman.
You know I asked the question when he visited the UK last year: ‘Why on earth would they roll out the red carpet for Bin Salman?’ Well now we know why. It’s the only way to cover up the blood which is dripping from his hands from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians in Yemen.
Next week, on the day Boris Johnson makes his conference speech, it will be exactly one year since Jamal Khashoggi was butchered inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Twelve months on, and still, still, this Tory government will not say who it believes was responsible, because they say: ‘The Saudi government is still investigating’.
But amid all the acres of news coverage that followed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the most important sentence I read was from Doctor Mekkia Mahdi, working in a health clinic in northern Yemen, trying to help the dozens of children starving and dying all around her every day.
And she said this: “We’re surprised the Khashoggi case is getting so much attention, while millions of Yemeni children are suffering, and nobody gives a damn about them.”
And she said those very words, sitting by the bed of a 7-year old girl named Amal Hussain, the images of whose emaciated body shocked the world, and who died just a week later.
And yes, we can cry tears for Amal, and all the other children who have died in Yemen and in Syria, in Cameroon and South Sudan, in Myanmar and in Gaza.
But I have to tell you this, Conference, I am sick and tired of sorrow. I am sick and tired of crying over what happens one month only to see even worse happen the next.
Because those children need more than our sympathy and tears. They need our action. They need our protection. And we cannot call ourselves the keepers of those children unless we are out there demanding it.
This age of impunity needs to end. This era of ‘strongman’ politics needs to end.
And yes, there are signs of hope: Jacinda Arden in New Zealand; Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa; Antti Rinne in Finland; Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia, and a whole generation of progressive men and women who are shaking up American politics, and putting the fear of God into Donald Trump.
But we need to do more. More to stop the hate-filled rhetoric that poisons our domestic and global politics, more to stop the reckless lurch towards military action as the only way to resolve international disputes. And more to stop the irresponsible sale of arms to countries who use them to kill civilians.
And while Labour in government will take immediate steps on the sale of arms for use in Yemen and in Gaza, we will also do what I promised two years ago on this stage, and what Brighton’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle has fought for tirelessly, and conduct a root-and-branch reform of our arms exports regime to ensure that never again can Ministers turn a blind eye when British-made weapons are being used to kill innocent children.
And never again put strategic alliances with monsters like Bin Salman before our responsibility to uphold human rights and protect the lives of our brothers and sisters across the world.
But conference, we must also state as a fundamental principle that it is not just our role as a party to fight against the injustices we see today, but also to correct the injustices of the past.
That is why we have committed to issue a formal apology for the first Amritsar massacre, and hold a public review into Britain’s role in the second.
That is why we have committed to allow the people of the Chagos Islands and their descendants the right to return from the lands from which they should never have been removed.
That is why we have committed to establish a judge-led inquiry into our country’s alleged past complicity in rendition and torture, and into the current operation of our secret courts.
But when we are in government, I have agreed with Jeremy, John, Nia and Dan that we will also correct two other great injustices from our country’s past.
First, we will ensure that surviving Black African, Asian and Caribbean soldiers who fought to free the world from fascism finally get the same demob payments that were given to their white counterparts fighting at the same rank and in the same regiments.
They put their lives on the line for our freedom, they watched their comrades die, but then faced the insult, the indignity of being paid a different rate when they went home, simply because of the colour of their skin. In government, we will correct that injustice.
And second, conference, there is another group of military veterans to whom we owe a huge debt. The men who from the 1950s onwards were exposed to terrible levels of radiation when overseeing Britain’s nuclear tests, and who have not just seen their own health damaged as a result, but most painfully, their children and grand-children too.
Both the USA and France have given large lump-sum payments to some of their own nuclear test veterans to help them cope with their medical problems. But the next Labour government will go further than either of those countries.
We will give a £50,000 lump sum payment to every surviving test veteran to help them and their families cope with their medical problems, and give them the security and comfort they deserve in their old age. And let me thank the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, The Mirror newspaper, and the journalist Susie Boniface in particular, for fighting so hard and so long to win justice for those brave servicemen.
So, in conclusion, conference, if it is our mission to be the keepers of our brothers and sisters around the world, let me tell you what we must keep doing now.
– We must keep campaigning against climate change even when others are letting their own rainforests burn.
– We must keep supporting all the brave men and women who fight for our country and the brave overseas aid workers who also make our country proud.
– We must keep fighting to defeat the ‘strongman’ politicians and hold them properly to account for their crimes.
– We must keep standing up for every persecuted minority in our own country and around the world.
– We must keep working tirelessly for peace even when others are champing at the bit for war.
– We must keep challenging the injustices of the present and correcting the injustices of the past.
– And with your endorsement today, conference, with the instructions that I hope you give us today, I believe we must strive day and night, whatever it takes, to keep Britain in the European Union.
– But above all those things, conference, we must keep our eyes on the prize, we must keep our unity and our discipline, we must keep focused on getting Labour back into power. Because as Nelson Mandela told us on this stage, we are the keepers, and we must keep fighting until we win. Thank you.