The vote to leave the European Union marked a turning point in British politics. But it was also a potentially important moment for the UK’s role in global politics. For some of its supporters, at least, Brexit was in part about unleashing the potential of ‘Global Britain,’ allowing the country to trade and collaborate with countries across the world in a way it either could not or had not when in the European Union. For others, of course, Brexit was a decision taken for the opposite reasons: a sign of a country turning its back on the world, and pulling up the proverbial drawbridge. And for some things were still worse. For them, Brexit was a rest in the worst possible sense, heralding an era in which the new Prime Minister was poised not only to tear down the UK’s 40-odd year relationship with its nearest and largest partner, but also the wider system of global institutions built up since the end of the second world war. Boris Johnson was, as the US president himself put it, ‘Britain Trump’. Yet the reality has been that none of these visions seems to have been borne out.
Brexit has not proved — so far at least — to be an opening salvo against the traditional British approach to foreign policy. Indeed, post-referendum, the UK relationship with the EU has hardly been discussed as a foreign policy issue at all. The Conservative manifesto last year contained not a single mention of co-operation with the EU in the fields of foreign policy, security and defence. On the other hand, it was at pains to stress other multilateral structures that ‘project our influence and keep us safe’, such as NATO, the UN Security Council, the Five Eyes, the G20, the G7 and the World Trade Organisation.
This points to a fundamental problem at the heart of Conservative thinking. ‘Global Britain’, the government’s poorly —nay, un- defined — post-Brexit foreign policy slogan is often presented in terms which imply that enhanced global influence and extensive co-operation with European allies are mutually exclusive.
A European ally
Yet nothing about Boris Johnson’s foreign policy to date smacks of a break with his European partners. His recent willingness to sign up to an E3 statement on Iran was evidence of a continued desire to work closely with France and Germany. Nor is there any hint of a desire to diverge from, for instance, the EU approach to sanctions on Russia, on the contrary.
For another, security is about far more than foreign policy and defence. The European Union plays a crucial role when it comes to internal security and police and judicial co-operation. The lack of debate in the UK about these areas of co-operation is as striking as the absence of vision for foreign and defence collaboration. Yet there are no obvious ways of compensating for the loss of access either to institutions such as Europol or to key EU databases that are central to the contemporary fight against organised crime and terrorism.
One fundamental misunderstanding of Brexit, particularly on the part of pro-Remain commentators, was that it somehow signalled a broader opposition to multilateralism. This impression was only strengthened by the overblown rhetoric of the likes of Boris Johnson (when foreign secretary especially) and former defence secretary Gavin Williamson, who spoke of the UK as ‘a global power’. This gave the impression of an inflated British sense of its global standing based on sentimental thinking about its past rather than its current relative status economically and militarily.
The reality is more subtle. As the Conservative manifesto implied, the Government appreciates the values of international institutions, albeit not explicitly those of the European Union. Multilateralism, in fact, runs through all of the UK’s most recent actions in the international sphere, whether Iran (JCPOA), climate change (Paris Agreement) or sanctions on Russia. The UK has invariably sought multilateral solutions, and almost invariably this has been done in concert with the UK’s allies in Europe.
On each of these issues, the UK has been closer to the European consensus — partly because it helped to drive that consensus while a member state — than to an increasingly erratic US under Donald Trump. Even recent comments by Mr Johnson that the JCPOA should be replaced with ‘the Trump deal’ actually spoke to the need, ultimately, for a deal of some sort, albeit one rebranded with the Trump logo.
The domestic front
More uncertain is how domestic politics plays out on foreign policy over the coming years. Historically, there appeared to be a consensus on foreign policy among the major political parties. There was broad agreement on the valuable role played by NATO, and on the need to maintain the country’s nuclear deterrent force.
The arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition Labour Party in 2015 rendered any notion of consensus unsustainable. With a long history of campaigning against, as he would see it, US imperialism and nuclear weapons, and long-standing scepticism towards NATO (a ‘US imperial tool’), Mr Corbyn was a foreign policy outsider. This was never more evident than following the nerve agent attack by Russian agents on a former Russian spy in the UK in 2018. This led to the death of a British citizen, poisoned accidentally after coming into contact with the nerve agent. Corbyn’s instinct was to question the veracity of the evidence of the UK security services and to seek explanations other than the involvement of the Russian state, whose culpability was later proved beyond reasonable doubt.
However, the erosion of the foreign policy consensus in the UK predated the election of Mr Corbyn. When the House of Commons voted on potential strikes against Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2013, Ed Miliband — Mr Corbyn’s predecessor — led the argument against the government. In the end, some 51% of MPs who voted rejected taking military action, a stark demonstration of division, and one that ultimately influenced US President Barack Obama’s decision-making as well. This division is especially evident when compared to similar action in Libya in 2011, which was approved by 98% of MPs who voted.
Whether any sort of consensus returns in the near future will largely depend on who becomes the next Labour leader. Of the four remaining candidates as at late-January, only one — the Corbyn continuity candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey — would likely follow a similar approach to Mr Corbyn. The other three, to varying degrees, would almost certainly take a more conventional line.
That being said, it is unlikely that the Labour Party is about to become unquestioningly pro-Atlanticist in outlook. For one thing, the Iraq war is still a source of debate and disagreement within the party, and the chief reason why many leading Labour politicians refuse to be associated with the policies of the Blair governments (1997-2007). For another, the presence of Donald Trump is anathema to many.
Nor should the impact on British policymakers of a US president hostile to the European Union be underestimated. For many Conservative eurosceptics, the prospect of greater collaboration and association with the US is the great prize of Brexit. President Obama famously said the UK would be at ‘the back of the queue’ for any trade negotiations with the US if it voted to leave the EU. The Trump administration, and its ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, could not be more different. This has provided eurosceptic politicians in the UK with important ammunition to make a case for reorienting the UK’s economy, even if there’s little sign the public support such a move.
The US will also be crucial for the UK when it comes to British policy on China. As with the EU on foreign policy issues such as Iran, the UK will want to triangulate when it comes to China, where investment is the major issue. The UK has already come under pressure from the US not to allow Chinese telecoms firm Huawei to be involved in building the UK’s 5G network.
When it comes to trade — the policy area more than any other where the government will seek to fulfil the perceived benefits of leaving the EU — it seems likely the US would insist on similar restrictions as in its renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico: the UK would have to choose, the US or China, not both. As the US administration well knows, if forced there would be little doubt about the choice the UK would make. The priority for the UK is not to find itself in the position to have to choose to begin with.
It still remains unclear what the British government’s intentions are when it comes to its foreign policy, security and defence relationship with the EU. Theresa May had given an unequivocal commitment to European defence no matter what happened in the wider UK-EU relationship. The Johnson administration has been more reticent to make such commitments, seeing the May government as not having maximised its negotiating leverage, of which security is seen as a major part. The political declaration, which set out the framework for the future UK-EU relationship, does foresee the possibility of fairly wide-ranging co-operation in this field. However, the British government will not want to sign up to EU projects or bodies in a hurry, not least as these will result in an invoice arriving on the doorstep of Number 10 and risk giving the impression of reintegrating with an organisation the UK has just left.
Although the vote to leave the European Union would have been a radical policy choice for any member state, it was especially so in the UK, where the policymaking approach tends to be gradual, piecemeal and ad hoc. But Brexit should not be read as a signal of impending radical change. Policy making practices and traditions in the British civil service are long-established and well-entrenched. This is especially so in foreign affairs, where civil service expertise is crucial in guiding politicians through unpredictable international events. The Johnson administration will be almost entirely domestic focused in its major policy plans. It will not have the bandwidth for a radical foreign policy agenda at the same time, and nor has it articulated one. Brexit may not mean business as usual for British foreign policy, but given the circumstances it might be pretty close.