When I arrived in Britain as Australia’s High Commissioner four years ago, I had never seen a democratic political system in such a state of crisis. Parliament was deadlocked. The Tories were in open civil war. And Whitehall was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that the public had decreed that Britain would withdraw from the European Union.
Civil servants, always the guardians of conventional wisdom, are notoriously resistant to fundamental change. With Brexit, such was the shock to the mandarins of the upending of one of the most basic assumptions of British governance for the past several decades, the institutional reluctance – indeed, resistance – was palpable.
Ultimately, the political deadlock was broken with Boris Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street and his emphatic electoral victory soon afterwards. The naysayers were forced into a resentful silence. Sadly, however, as I leave London, my sense is that Britain has yet to fully come to terms with the profound change that Brexit has brought. Within the power centres of Whitehall, institutional inertia remains strong.
A case in point is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is still to adjust to the massive opportunities for agricultural trade that “global Britain” offers: not just through bilateral agreements with nations such as Australia, New Zealand and India, but through the accession to the Pacific-rim trading community, the CPTPP. That institutional timidity has spread into the farming sector itself, where people are more concerned about the threat of imports than the prospect of creating new markets among the rising middle class of the Indo-Pacific nations.
I suspect the reluctance in Whitehall and elsewhere to seize the prospect of a truly global Britain is shaped more by cultural attitudes, imperceptibly absorbed over decades, than economic realities. A near half-century cocooned within the EU has, in some sectors, taken the edge off the spirit of enterprise which once so defined Britain.
Meanwhile, the declinist narrative, pervasive for most of the period since the Second World War (although briefly arrested by Margaret Thatcher), has corroded Britain’s self-confidence. The incessant attacks on the country’s history by some of its cultural elites have made too many feel they ought to be ashamed of a past which, while not without blemishes, ought to be a source of pride.
Britain’s history has been a story of progress. It used to be Whig historians like Trevelyan who made that case; today it is Tory historians like Andrew Roberts. Whether it be the abolition of the slave trade, the evolution of the parliamentary system, the expansion of the franchise, the creation of the welfare state, the championing of the rule of law, the defiance of dictators, the advancement of human rights across the globe or the empowerment of minorities, Britain has been a force for good in the world.
So my parting message as I relinquish the role as Australia’s diplomatic representative in London is this: global Britain may have begun as a slogan, but it can be a reality, too. We see that reality taking shape before our eyes with your reaction to the outrage in Ukraine. It was Britain that led the world in the immediacy, strength and moral clarity of your response. Self-laceration and pessimism have enervated too much of your political and cultural establishment for too long. The liberal-democratic world needs a strong, confident, enterprising and ambitious global Britain – and at this dangerous time in world history, it needs you now more than ever before.
George Brandis was Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom 2018-2022