UK Politics

Labour apologises to Belgians and Danes over West slur

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Media captionLord West said the UK was a major player on the global scene - unlike some EU colleagues

The Labour Party has apologised after one of its most senior politicians described Belgium and Denmark as "second-tier" countries.

Outlining the party's defence policy review, ex-Security Minister Lord West said the UK retained a "certain clout".

And he argued that too much downgrading of military capacity would make it more like "bloody Denmark or Belgium".

But shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy apologised to "our former friends" in the fellow European Union countries.

The Conservatives branded Lord West's words "stupid and insensitive", while the Danish Cultural Institute called them "a bit insulting".

His comments come at what had been thought a time of great hope for relations between Labour and Denmark.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who became the country's first female prime minister last week, is married to Stephen Kinnock, son of Lord Kinnock, the party's leader from 1983 to 1992.

Lord West made his remarks as Labour delivered the findings of a 10-month review into defence procurement, aimed at getting better value for money, part of leader Ed Miliband's policy overhaul.

'Slightly annoyed'

Taking part in a question-and-answer session with 100 journalists and guests in central London, the former First Sea Lord said: "This business of a second-tier power - we are probably, depending on what figures you use, the fifth or sixth wealthiest nation in the world.

Image caption Denmark's government and Labour's aristocracy are linked by marriage

"We have the largest percentage of our GDP on exports, apart from the tiny countries around the world, we run world shipping from the UK, we are the largest European investor in South Asia, South East Asia (and) the Pacific Rim, so our money and our wealth depends on this global scene.

"We are a permanent member of the [United Nations] Security Council and I think that gives us certain clout and certain ability.

"These mean we are not a second-tier power. We are not bloody Denmark or Belgium, and if we try to become that, I think we would be worse-off as a result. I get slightly annoyed at this sort of statement."

Labour's shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy, sitting next to Lord - formerly Sir Alan - West, said: "Thanks Alan, and obviously for any friends from Belgium or Denmark, apologies. Or should I say former friends from Belgium or Denmark?"

Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: "I'm appalled to hear Labour's Lord West insulting Denmark and Belgium, both of whom have been operating alongside British Forces in Libya.

"Forty-two Danes have lost their lives fighting alongside us in Helmand. Lord West's remarks are both stupid and insensitive."

Kim Minke, director of the Danish Cultural Institute, based in Edinburgh, told the BBC: "It's a bit insulting. If you count absolute military numbers, Britain is much bigger than Denmark.

"But, in relative terms, we have as many troops as Britain in Afghanistan, perhaps even a few more. In that sense the comments are a bit disrespectful."

He added: "In absolute terms we are not as great a military power as Great Britain and we haven't been for a few hundred years. But our forces are working well together."

The Danish defence minister, Gitte Lillelund Bech, declined to comment when contacted.

According to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Denmark has 750 troops operating in the country and Belgium 520.

Gordon Brown made Lord West of Spithead security minister when he became prime minister in 2007, as part of what was described as a "government of all the talents".

The peer, now 63, apologised for saying in a radio interview soon afterwards that he was not "totally convinced" of the need to hold terror suspects for 42 days - a key Labour policy at the time.

He explained the switch by saying: "Being a simple sailor, not a politician, maybe I didn't choose my words well."

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