Perusing Blackwell’s last Saturday, I spotted a shelve of those political screeds – titles like Britain Alone, Hard Choices, and How Britain Ends – that peddle a steady fix of declinism for Oxford dons still frothing about Brexit. The signed copies of The Abolition of Britain left by Peter Hitchens lay unmolested; despite a similarly gloomy tone, having that on the bookshelf of your college rooms would court a disinvitation from every high table dinner going.
The idea that Brexit dooms Britain to international irrelevance is baked into Europhilia. Joining the European Economic Community was a natural consequence of the winds of change blowing away our imperial role. Governing Britain has always been too small for Whitehall’. Becoming reduced to “a greater Sweden” – as Con O’Neill, our entry’s chief negotiator, put it – horrified a Britannia used to ruling the waves. ‘Europe’ provided a new stage.
Yet a desire for Britain to be a global player is shared by leading proponents of both Remain and Leave. The latter have long promoted ‘Global Britain’: leaving the EU can allow us to go “out and into the world”, swapping the navel-gazing of Brussels for a renewed internationalism. Brexit meant no pulling up of the drawbridge, but further liberalisation, and cuts to tariffs, taxes, and regulations – not a social democratic sanctuary but ‘Singapore on Thames’, as the cliché goes.
Apologies for the potted history lesson. But my bookshop visit came after two major developments have left our post-Brexit position on my mind. One was an action – Rishi Sunak’s agreement of the ‘Windsor Framework’ with Brussels – and the other a speech – Theresa May’s Carlton Lecture on ‘Global Britain’.
For the latter, the former Prime Minister picked a topic she thought mattered “deeply to all Conservatives: Britain’s place in the world.” She explained how, on entering Number 10, she “set Global Britain as the UK’s foreign policy”. After the referendum – a “moment of profound change” – she “wanted the UK to emerge outward-looking, self-confident and ambitious” since “we have a proud history as an internationalist nation”.
May aimed for the UK “to be a standard bearer for free and open trade”. But “Global Britain is about so much more than economics”. Britain “must be a force for good in the world and a passionate defender of our values”. We have a “unique position to be a constructive voice in the world” and “to maintain and strengthen the rules-based international order that we helped build after the Second World War.”
May reeled off a series of examples. Tackling modern slavery through the United Nations. Securing our presidency of COP 26. Maintaining our pledge of 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid. Rallying our allies after the Salisbury poisonings. Our commitment to Afghanistan, and our aid to Ukraine. In short, a paean to internationalism well within the “tradition of mainstream, centre-right Conservatism”.
This is not a tendency limited solely to Tories (as Tony Blair’s premiership proved). It is the instinctive position of the generation that saw the Cold War won: a belief that democracy, freedom, and Levi jeans triumphed then, continue to do so today, and will do so long past history’s end.
I would hardly accuse May of being a starry-eyed idealist. But her sentiments rang a little hollow in light of the great diplomatic horror that overshadowed her time in office: the Brexit negotiations. In her failure to agree a deal with Brussels that could get past Conservative MPs, May showed the limitations of ‘Global Britain’: projecting a role in the world relies on our leaders having the statecraft to match their ambitions with the reality in which they find themselves.
Although May condemns the situation created in Northern Ireland by Boris Johnson’s Protocol, that agreement was a desperate fudge by her successor to get Britain out of the hole into which she had dug it. Her two major mistakes had been to agree to the EU’s position of ‘sequencing’ the Brexit talks and to be foxed into making a commitment to both ‘avoid a hard border’ and to protect the EU’s internal market.
What these meant was both the abandonment of our leverage and the UK’s adoption of a duty to protect the EU’s border without the creation of physical border controls. The choice was thus between either her perfidious Backstop – keeping all the UK effectively in the single market to prevent divergence through the Irish Sea – or hiving off Northern Ireland to allow the rest of the UK to leave the EU.
Johnson and Lord Frost plumped for the latter in the hope that the Protocol could be changed in the future – a choice that has been vindicated. The agreement has never been implemented in full. The threat of the UK Internal Market Bill to break international law in a “specific and limited way” pressured the EU to move on a number of crucial areas. The focus has been on incremental changes: slowly unpacking elements of the Protocol until it no longer de facto exists.
Hence why Johnson’s pivot away from this toward the Protocol Bill was misguided. Tearing up the offending agreement in one fell swoop provoked horror in Brussels. The EU is a hugely complex entity with a dizzying number of stakeholders and parties to please. Conducting diplomacy with more of an eye to headlines in The Daily Telegraph rather than a grasp of the EU’s reality is to commit a blunder of the same magnitude as May.
The EU has moved during Brexit negotiations, it has not been when Britain has shouted the loudest, but when we have made clear a position held by Brussels is intolerable, and that we have other options. The EU first had to be convinced Brexit would happen. It then had to be warned we would willing and able to pursue ‘no deal’ if it did not reopen May’s agreement. The Protocol Bill thus only had value as bargaining chip to be traded away.
The Windsor Framework, by providing an ‘emergency break’ for EU laws, by creating a ‘green channel’ for UK-specific goods, and by allowing London to set VAT and excise duty (amongst other things) creates a useful precedent that fixing the Protocol means opting Northern Ireland out of EU areas, rather than dragging the UK further in.
Sunak was able to get this agreement because the EU recognised in him ‘a man one could do business with’. It is also because he acknowledged that incremental gains, driven by problems on the ground, provide a more sustainable strategy for eventually scrapping the Protocol than the sabre-rattling of his predecessors.
An understanding of “the art of the possible” is a natural consequence of Sunak’s character and Treasury brain (epitomised by his being a Cabinet outlier over the cost of lockdown and our support for Ukraine). One hopes it is something he can apply to the ‘Global Britain’ agenda more widely.
If we struggle to maintain defence spending of 2 per cent of GDP, should we really be sending aircraft carriers to the South China Sea? If the Ministry of Defence remains difficult to control, can we still kid ourselves that we are a global military power – especially when our closest allies no longer see us as one? If the answer to both of those is yes, have we really any hope of being anything more than “a greater Sweden”?
Or, if we don’t want to gloomily accept our apparent decline, is it time we funded our armed forces properly – and reconsidered their practical role? All questions to be addressed in today’s ConservativeHome’s conference on Defence and Security.