William Wallace writes: The contradictions of ‘Global Britain’

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A year ago Boris Johnson promised that his government would undertake the most fundamental review of the UK’s international priorities since the end of the Cold War.   He promised that this would be the biggest review of our foreign, defence and development policy since the end of the Cold War, designed to maximise our influence and integrate all the strands of our international efforts.

Next Tuesday, March 16th, the first part of this ‘Integrated Review of Foreign and Security Policy’ will be published – several months later than planned.  Changes in those responsible haven’t helped: David Frost was made national security adviser, then threatened to resign, then became instead the Cabinet minister for (mis)handling relations with the EU.  Dominic Raab was distracted by the messy business of putting the FCO and the Department for International Development (DfID) together.  The Prime Minister as usual wasn’t thinking things through.  We expect a smoothly-written essay on ‘Global Britain’, without much detail on what that means in practice.  The implications for defence manpower and resources will appear in a separate paper two weeks later.

Johnson has rhapsodised on ‘Global Britain’, without ever explaining what exactly that implied.  Freed from the constraints of the EU, he saw Britain recovering its ‘buccaneering spirit’; he seems unaware that the buccaneers were licensed pirates.  He’s been ecstatic about sending a carrier task force past Singapore to the South China Sea, though he never explained what the strategy behind that would be.  Tory think-tanks have produced reports on ‘the tilt to the Indo-Pacific’, which others have labelled ‘the tilt away from Europe’.

It’s unlikely that the government has sorted out the many contradictions in its post-Brexit foreign policy.  Ministers place great weight on relations with Australia and India – much more weight on a future partnership with India than the Indian government will be willing to accept.  The underlying assumption is that our ‘sovereign’ Britain will stick closely to the USA, as its most loyal partner.  The degree of dependence on the USA will become starkly clear when our carrier task force sails east next year, with a squadron of US Marine Corps aircraft on board (we do not have enough on our own) and an American destroyer providing vital anti-aircraft defence.

Johnson has spoken of Britain’s invaluable ‘soft power’, and of the ‘convening power’ that comes from the skills of our diplomats and our global reputation.  That has not stopped ministers from attacking the most important elements of Britain’s soft power reputation.  The BBC is under sustained domestic attack, undermining its reputation internationally.  Ministers see universities as strongholds of the hated liberal elite, and plan to introduce a restrictive Bill later this year.  Melanie Phillips in The Times on March 10th accused universities of ‘turning the minds of millions against the nation and its core values’ – so not world leaders, then!  DfID, world-renowned for the quality of its aid programmes, is being dismantled, with its funding slashed.

Boris sees post-Brexit Britain as the envy of the world.  A recent Chatham House paper points out that ‘Britain has an image problem’: we do not look to others as the upholder of international law and global order that ministers claim.

Much of the right-wing press will welcome whatever the government puts forward.  We must point out that the absence of any coherent approach to European security or foreign policy cooperation leaves a large hole; that sending our shrunken navy back ‘east of Suez’, from which Britain withdrew nearly 60 years ago, represents imperial nostalgia rather than strategic planning; and that a government that claims to lead the world in democratic values needs to pay more attention to its authoritarian and corrupt practices at home.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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11 Comments

  • Jenny Barnes 11th Mar '21 - 2:34pm

    I thought we had 6 Type 45 Daring class destroyers? They can’t all be having their engines replaced so they work in warm water. Anysay, it’s absurd to send HMS HighValueTarget or HMS DelusionsOfGrandeur to the China sea, where Chinese missiles could easily take them out.

  • William Wallace is second to none in using and understanding diplomatic language – which adds considerable force to his ending with a reference to “authoritarian and corrupt practices.”

  • Neo-imperialist is a more apt description rather than global.

  • Singing the Road to Mandalay in Burma wasn’t a good start.

  • William Francis 11th Mar '21 - 8:46pm

    “sending our shrunken navy back ‘east of Suez’, from which Britain withdrew nearly 60 years ago, represents imperial nostalgia”

    Didn’t Grimond argue that this kind of backward behavior was holding back the British economy in his 1961 pamphlet growth, not grandeur?

  • @ William Francis Yes, indeed he did, and ask around in Scotland whether English Imperialism and Nationalism still lingers on…… sometimes conscious, sometimes not, even in the columns of LDV.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Mar '21 - 10:54pm

    The regular but informative opinions of Lord Wallace, whom I like and rate, would appeal more to Liberal Democrats and much more widely, if the were minus the element of Hyperbole, and with more of his hints of the satirical!

    We do not, as liberals, by whatever means he tries, have to accept that criticism of a forced licence fee to pay for a state broadcaster, is ” sustained domestic attack of the BBC!” To want to abolish that awful method of finance, and to replace it with a slim but effective budget from the DCMS, for example, would, replacing commercial nonsense the current output favours, enhance good traditional quality and boost our soft power!

    To favour a social market in public funding of public service broadcasting, alloting money to any broadcasting of real service, is far more of a emphasis on cultural diplomacy, and hence soft power,than endless reality, game, home, food, lifestyle, shows!

    There would be more to these articles if a way between loathing and loving something were found, a way I call Liberalism!

    True on culture war too, and the way to really fight it by diplomacy, cultural, diplomacy!

  • William Wallace 12th Mar '21 - 11:00am

    The most horrifying thing about re-reading what Grimond said about Britain’s place in the world 0ver 65 years ago is that it still sounds relevant to the current debate. The imperial hangover still lingers. I remember Liam Fox talking (during the coalition government) about the gratitude Indians felt for what Britain had done for them and how they would welcome a closer relationship; that’s still an assumption for Johnson in pursuing partnership with Modi. And the commitment to global power projection…

  • Manfarang 11th Mar ’21 – 7:17pm….Singing the Road to Mandalay in Burma wasn’t a good start….

    It’s part of Boris’s ‘charm’, Don’tcha know?

    Such ‘not appropriate’ behavior plays well with ‘true-blue’ Tories; however, the rest of the world see it rather differently…..

  • William Wallace – Liam Fox should read the Indian bestseller, Inglorious Empire: What the British did for India” by the politician, diplomat and writer Shashi Tharoor.

    The first chapter is titled ‘The Looting of India’ and quotes research that in the early 1700s the Indian economy was 23% of the world total; by the time Britain left that had dropped to 3%. Other chapter headings are equally bleak from a British POV.

    I would add that in a more subtle way it was pretty bad for Britain too. The Raj provided great riches to a small elite (some still visible in the shape of their great country houses) but also meant that important questions like how to run the industrial economy that was then developing or how to harness the talents of the people in a changing world were side-lined – and shockingly remain so to this day.

    I fear that India is going to prove yet another area where Brexiteers didn’t do their homework and are in for a rude awakening.

  • The reality is that post Brexit our international relations will be governed by trade deals. Then we will either join with the USA or the EU regarding global security issues. If this means we as suggested in the article we become closer to America it is of concern with the its political election cycle being so unpredictable.

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