How will the UK’s post-Brexit global role look?

How will the UK’s post-Brexit global role look?

How do UK politicians and policymakers see Britain’s foreign policy after it leaves the EU?

For three years, Brexit has drained the intellectual life force out of Whitehall and Westminster, leaving little time and space for thinking about the future.

Yet now, as we close on the projected 29 March date of departure, there are signs at last that some policymakers are lifting their eyes from the immediate negotiations and trying to look beyond the horizon.

This is especially true of foreign policy.

One of the great ironies of Brexit is that an issue which often seems to be about Britain’s relationship with the outside world has been viewed so narrowly through the prism of UK domestic politics.

MPs in the House of Commons
Some MPs are looking beyond parliamentary debate to the UK’s post-Brexit role

The debate at Westminster has focused largely on points of ideological difference over backstops, red lines and the internal party divisions.

Yet the position many voters took on Brexit was often determined by much broader issues: their view of Britain’s role in the world, their response to the pros and cons of globalisation, and yes, their attitude towards the numbers of foreigners in Britain.

Some MPs are now turning their minds to these issues. But before asking what role Britain should play in the world after Brexit, perhaps we should first ask what we think Britain should be at home?

In recent days, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry gave a speech to the Institute for Government think tank.

She set out her plans to rebalance Britain’s foreign policy under a future Labour government by doing more to promote the UK’s values and not only its commercial interests.

Emily Thornberry
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry wants the UK to do more to promote its values abroad

There would be a greater focus on human rights and a review of the government’s regime for arms exports.

She likened her approach to the foreign policy “with an ethical dimension” promoted by the former Labour foreign secretary, Robin Cook, “but with added realism”.

A few days later Bob Seely, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, published his own 40-page blueprint for Britain’s future place in the world.

His idea is for Britain to become a champion for freedom: freedom for trade, freedom from oppression and freedom of thought.

So he wants the UK to reform the World Trade Organization to tackle protectionism, to promote human rights and combat modern slavery, and take on authoritarianism by boosting the BBC World Service.

An aerial photograph of The Port of Tilbury
Tory MP Bob Seely wants the UK to push for the WTO to combat protectionism

To co-ordinate all this, Mr Seely said the departments for international development and international trade should be merged back into the Foreign Office. He also wants the rules constraining Britain’s aid budget to be loosened.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is largely focused on Brexit, but has scored some diplomatic runs by taking a more robust stance on the treatment of the Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar, also known as Burma. and Iran’s detention of the British-Iranian dual national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

He is also adopting a new focus on defending media freedom and protecting Christians from persecution. But Mr Hunt’s big idea is that Britain can become what he calls “an invisible chain” linking the world’s democracies.

The UK, he hopes, can set itself up as a defender of liberty, the rule of law, and civil and political rights against the growing threat from authoritarian regimes.

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sees the UK as an “invisible chain” linking the world’s democracies

Many of these ideas are worthy of examination.

Yet, taken together, they appear to illustrate the lack of thinking about foreign policy since Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016.

It is one thing to be in favour of democracy and values, it is another to say what this might mean in practice.

Take Ms Thornberry’s speech. In the question and answer session that followed, I asked if she thought China was a threat or an opportunity and whether the UK should ban the Chinese tech giant Huawei?

This was her reply: “I don’t know, in relation to China, is my honest answer. So I don’t think I am going to sit here and bullshit you, James.”

So on the great dilemma facing the Western world, Labour’s thinking is, shall we say, a work in progress.

Vague concept

Mr Seely’s pamphlet has the merit of depth. But its focus is on institutional change: the merging of Whitehall departments, the setting up of strategy councils and spending audits and so on.

There were more questions than answers when it came to setting out what actual policy these new structures should promote.

And as for the foreign secretary’s big idea, of the “invisible chains” of democracy, this suffers from its very title.

Invisible policy is a vague concept, to say the least, and chains may not be a great image for a post-imperial power trying to find its place in the world.

In addition, his recommendations looked to institutional change: more British diplomats, reform of the United Nations and so on.

There are also some shared gaps here.

For decades our foreign policy has placed Britain as a bridge between the EU and the US. But few analyses are clear about what Britain’s relationship with Europe and America should be in the future. There is little thinking about the demographic explosion taking place in Africa.

But the crucial point is that too much of this thinking seems to ignore first principles.

Before we can decide Britain’s place in the world, perhaps we need first to debate what Britain itself should be in the 21st Century? What kind of politics do we want to have?

The 19th Century prime minister and statesman, William Gladstone, said that his first principle of foreign policy was “good government at home”.

And he was right: countries with a strong sense of national identity, a healthy economy and a stable political leadership with a clear agenda tend to have good foreign policies. At the moment, I am not sure Britain quite lives up to that ideal.

So, before we start talking about Whitehall reform, leveraging our aid budget, spending more on defence, reforming the Commonwealth, copying Singapore or Japan or any of these other ideas, perhaps we need to work out first how we see ourselves as a nation.

Maybe diplomacy, and not just charity, should begin at home?

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