Anand Menon: What does Global Britain mean in practice, and when will the Government deliver it?

1 Mar

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

“In leaving the European Union we restored sovereign control over vital levers of foreign policy,” declared Boris Johnson in his speech to the Munich Security Conference. To be frank, that is debatable. The EU’s competence over foreign policy is limited – so membership provided little in the way of constraint on national autonomy.

What is less open to question is the assertion, as the Prime Minister clearly laid out in what was an important speech, that this is a moment of opportunity for British foreign policy. Seizing it, however, will pose several challenges.

Brexit has already allowed the UK to take some actions it would not otherwise have been able to. By 1 January, continuity trade agreements had been signed with 58 countries. The UK moved to impose sanctions on Belarus, while the EU dithered and delayed.

There are costs as well as benefits, though. The new trade deals largely replicate what we had as a member state, and their impact is paltry compared to the negative impact of new barriers to trade with our nearest and largest trading partner. Equally, sanctions are more effective when applied by several states, and autonomy from the EU comes at the price of a decline in influence over what the EU does.

Indeed, it might yet be that the most important foreign policy impact of Brexit turns out to be indirect. ‘Global Britain’ was dreamt up as a way of underlining that Brexit did not mean insularity. And the desire to ensure that Brexit is seen to succeed provides a powerful incentive to make Global Britain real.

Consequently, at Munich, the Prime Minister sketched out an ambitious agenda. He clearly intends to use his convening power to push his agenda. He has used the UK’s chairmanship of the G7 to issue invitations to Australia, India and South Korea to attend the summit in Cornwall in June. This may mark the inauguration of a formalized D10 intended to present a united front against China.

On climate change, the 26th United Nations ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) on climate change will be the first such event to be held in the UK, presenting a golden opportunity to establish the UK as a continuing big player in global climate diplomacy in its own right.

Yet turning ambitions into reality will require several things.

First, a clarity of vision and ability to make difficult choices. When it comes to the D10, Mr Johnson needs to consider whether it really makes sense to create a grouping of democracies without engaging closely with the EU, whether some of those he is inviting really merit the label ‘democracy,’ and, indeed, what balance he wishes to strike between sanctioning and engaging with China.

It is hard to believe now, but the Prime Minister repeatedly called for a free trade agreement with China. Domestic pressures are going to make that impossible to deliver. And yet an overlooked implication of Brexit is that Beijing can retaliate against UK measures in response to perceived human rights abuses without the need to get embroiled in a wider fight with the EU as a whole.

Dealing with China and – more so – addressing the climate crisis are the work of decades. Success is not a question of quick political ‘wins’, but requires sticking power. For partly understandable reasons related to the pandemic, this is not a Government that has, as yet, shown an aptitude for thinking beyond the short term. If it is genuine about its environmental aspirations, however, it must.

This will involve not only confronting those among the Prime Minister’s own supporters who do not share his liberal international vision, but also building a consensus that can outlive his time in office.

None of which will be altogether straightforward. According to recent polling by the British Foreign Policy Group, while 34 per cent of Britons think ‘Global Britain’ implies the UK being a ‘champion of free trade and globalisation,’ more than a fifth (21 per cent) – including 35 per cent of Conservative leave supporting voters – take it to mean the UK is a nation with strong and secure borders focused on issues at home.

And when it comes to climate, while 68 per cent support the UK taking a global leadership role, Conservative voters appear less supportive and the least willing amongst voters to take individual action to address climate change.

This matters, because tackling the climate crisis involves a combination of diplomacy with action at home. Just as claims to be a champion of a rules-based international order were undermined by a stated intention to contravene international law so, too, the UK’s international climate leadership will hinge in part on it setting an example at home. The Government’s Ten Point Plan of November last year marked a good start, but more will need to be done to meet the ambitious targets set, and a failure to do so will hardly burnish our international climate leadership credentials.

And all this is without mentioning the domestic bases of international influence. It perhaps goes without saying – yet nevertheless I will mention it here – that the UK’s ability to make Global Britain a success will hinge every bit as much on the pace of its economic recovery from both the pandemic and from Brexit, and its ability to retain its unity in the face of separatist challenges.

The year ahead holds real promise in terms of the UK’s ability to finally put some flesh on the bones of its claims about Global Britain. Brexit adds a degree of political urgency to the quest to show the UK continues to wield influence. And the Government has laid out a pretty impressive agenda committing itself to the defence of the liberal, rules based international order. But declarations are merely a start. To deliver on its rhetoric, the Government will need to make hard choices and to show evidence of a clarity and long-term vision that, to date, have been rather notable by their absence. The long-awaited Integrated Review of security, defence, foreign policy and international development will represent an important signal as to whether it is willing to do so.

ConservativeHome and UK in a Changing Europe will be discussing Global Britain – navigating the post-Brexit world this evening with: Liz Truss MP, Secretary of State for International Trade; Katy Balls, Deputy (Chairman). Paul Goodman, Editor of ConservativeHome, will chair the event. Please register via this link.

Anand Menon: Our latest research finds that the Conservatives are divided on economics, but united on culture.

30 Jun

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

Dominic Cummings must be rubbing his hands with glee. As more and more questions are raised about what some are calling the ‘lethal amaterurism’ that has characterised the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the country spent most of June distracted by furious arguments about race and statues.

This has moved the debate on from Boris Johnson’s chief advisor’s unique approach to optical health. More importantly, a debate about values rather than health outcomes suits the Government down to the ground.

The referendum of 2016 polarized the country along values lines (between social liberals and social conservatives) rather than along the left-right cleavage that traditionally structured political competition.

Source: British Election Study

Nor was this a one-off phenomenon. The values division laid bare by the referendum went on to shape the nature of subsequent electoral competition. Think back to last year’s election.

The fact that the Conservatives won seats like Wakefield, Bishop Auckland and Workington, or that they won by 21 per cent among working class voters is testimony to the realignment that had taken place in our politics.

So too is the fact that in seats where over 60 per cent backed leave, the Tories increased their support by an average of six per cent, whereas in those seats where more than 60 per cent voted Remain, the party’s vote actually fell by three points.

The argument over statues that has been such a central part of the Black Lives Matter protests in this country has mobilized that same division. And it is terrain on which the Conservatives are relatively well equipped to fight.

Recent work carried out by the UK in a Changing Europe compares the attitudes of MPs, party members and voters, by asking each group a series of questions about fundamental ideological attitudes. The findings are revealing.

When it comes to social values, the Conservative clan looks relatively united. Even more importantly, on values they are far closer to those crucial voters who switched from Labour in 2017 to the Conservatives in 2019 than to Keir Starmer’s party.

But when it comes to the politics of left versus right – questions like whether ‘there is one rule for the rich and one for the poor’, and the idea that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’ – the picture could hardly be more different.

Conservative MPs are to the right of both their own party members and Conservative voters, and significantly to the right of those 2019 Labour-to-Conservative switchers. Labour, on the other hand, is not just far less internally divided but considerably closer to those lost voters.

Looking forward, then, the Conservatives have an interest in maintaining a focus on values. Think of it this way. On the (feigned) threat to Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the Conservative Party spoke with one voice and rallied behind Boris Johnson. When it comes to the economic response to Covid-19, the party’s backbenches are increasingly restless.

The easing of lockdown will focus attention firmly on economic recovery. How these issues are framed then takes on crucial importance. We face another decade in which political life will be shaped by the impact of an economic crisis.

The Conservative narrative may well seek to major not on the details of the economic response – on how great the role of the state should be, or how we pay for ballooning deficits – but on arguably more ‘ephemeral’ concerns.

Conservative commentators are already queuing up to point out that it is surely no longer a priority to publish gender pay gaps, or to ‘suffer a little for the sake of the planet.’ Others argue that fads like the war on plastic have been made redundant by the virus.

It seems Number 10 is, in the short term, planning a number of ways of triggering values divisions. The Sunday Times reported that the Government is planning to scrap plans to allow people to change their legal gender.

Other reports suggest that some in Downing Street are encouraging the Prime Minister to launch a ‘war on woke’. The hope is clearly to profit from profound values divisions within Labour’s electoral coalition and detatch voters who might, if it really were all about the economy, stupid, support the centre-left rather than the centre-right.

For Labour, then, the key will be to find a way to nullify this strategy. Paul Mason has rightly argued that the party must focus on coming up with a more convincing narrative about reshaping the role of the state in the economy, as a means of uniting a coalition that has fractured over the last decade over values questions.

The party now has a leader that the public, including Leave voters, find broadly convincing – and one who is going to be less easy to label as an unpatriotic ultra-liberal.

A narrative about economic fairness unites Labour and has the potential to tap into the ideological attitudes of the median voter.

The Government’s current plans to emerge from lockdown will create millions of economic losers, and the Conservatives look set to incur significant governing costs.

A laser like-focus on the economy and on the steps needed both to recover from the post-lockdown slowdown in such a way as to tackle the numerous inequalities that the pandemic has highlighted could command broad support, not least among those voters that fled the party last year.

As the recent Labour Together review of the 2019 election concluded, Labour could win by building support for a ‘big change economic agenda’ that neutralises cultural and social tensions.

Whatever happens, the relative impact of the two cleavages – left vs right and social liberal vs social conservative will be crucial. The relative success of each side in imposing its own agenda on the political debate will help determine who ultimately triumphs.

This article is a cross-post from the UK in a Changing Europe’s website.

Read the Mind the values gap report here.