Why “Global Britain” must be rooted in our liberal democratic values

The world has changed a lot over the past 30 years, becoming both more open and democratic and more prosperous. Well-being indicators of those most in need, especially in terms of health and education, have improved dramatically. But we still confront tremendous challenges, ranging from climate change to growing inequalities, especially within countries, and from conflict and fragility to migration. In addition, a profound dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and perceptions about the way it works has set in, not only in the developing world but also in countries that have traditionally been considered the cradles of democracy.

So despite the progress, it can often feel like we are confronting the greatest period of uncertainty and instability we have experienced since the second world war. As happened after World War II, the collective problems we face today require collective ways to address them. The United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the European Union itself, are all founded in the experience of what happens when the world fragments. Coming together to create rules-based regional and global communities was the answer in the post-War era. This is why it feels strangely anachronistic for the UK to press on with Brexit now – especially when considering that the EU has been the single most successful multilateral effort of peace- and state building and the promotion of development and prosperity we have known.

Prime Minister May launched the idea of a “Global Britain” in October 2016 to counter fears that the UK would become inward-looking after Brexit. The UK has been a powerful and influential player in the world stage, playing among other things a leading role in shaping the Sustainable Development Goals. But it is also the case that the EU has been a major multiplier for UK development and foreign policy – just as the UK has been a multiplier for EU development and foreign policy – and both risk losing significant leverage. So regardless of whether Britain stays inside or leaves the EU, making “Global Britain” more than a slogan will require sustained leadership and continued investment and engagement in crucial international relationships and commitments, both with(in) the EU and beyond.

In many ways, the work that the UK government has been doing on international development over the years can be considered to be “Global Britain” at its best. The Department for International Development (DFID) in particular has been widely recognised for its innovation and effectiveness, even if it still has a lot to learn. Speaking at an event at the Institute for Government in March 2017, Paul Collier, for example, said that Angela Merkel reportedly told Theresa May in a G7 gathering that the UK government should protect DFID because it was one of the UK’s “crown jewels”.

But perhaps most importantly, the idea of a Global Britain hinges on the promise that the UK can be a force for good in the world because of our values and track record as one of the oldest liberal democracies in the world. Yet it seems that the Brexit process has generated tensions and pressures that have made it much more difficult stand up for and uphold those collective values and beliefs, both at home and abroad. Over the past two years, the UK has confronted challenges to democratic practices and principles that have traditionally seemed more befitting of countries where democratic systems are far less rooted and institutionalised. Evidence and truth seem to have become far less relevant and important in informing public debate; violations of electoral law have taken place without any meaningful accounting for such actions, let alone reflection for what this implies in terms of shaping policymaking; and individual political ambition seems to have taken precedence over longer term horizons, in ways that can profoundly compromise our collective prosperity and wellbeing over the longer term.

The detrimental effects that the Brexit process has brought about are also clear on the international front, and many of the actions of the UK Government post-Brexit say a lot about current UK priorities and influence as supposed global leaders. Think about the way the UK government has had to tiptoe around Donald Trump because of the overriding imperative to negotiate a trade agreement with the United States. Or about how UK representatives have voted in recent motions in the European Parliament. In a vote in September to initiate proceedings against the Hungarian government for posing a systemic threat to democracy and the rule of law, only one Tory MEP voted in favour while fifteen voted against it and two abstained. This was in sharp contrast to other centre-left or centre-right parties represented in the EU Parliament, all of which supported the motion. And in October, following the killing of well-known journalist and outspoken Saudi critic Jamal Kashoggi, the EU Parliament voted overwhelmingly in support of an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia — but Tory MEPs abstained.

These are some of the dilemmas that Brexit has confronted us with: hard trade-offs between upholding our values and the imperatives of building alliances we (think we) need once we are out of the EU. The evidence to date is not very encouraging about which our current government will choose. But if the UK is to remain an influential global leader, this is not good enough. “Global Britain” does not mean much if it is not firmly anchored in our liberal democratic values.

* Alina Rocha Menocal is an expert on the politics of development. She has written this piece in a personal capacity, based on her participation on a panel organised by the Lib Dem International Development group at conference in Brighton on 16 September 2018, in which she was asked to reflect on what Brexit might imply for international development.

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  • Mick Taylor 13th Dec '18 - 9:20am

    DFID May have done OK, but the world leader on development is the EU, which has the biggest aid budget of all. There are a whole host of partnerships with the developing world that are never reported on the U.K. media or talked about by the Liberal Democrat’s. how many readers if LDV know about the Mediterranean Partnership with countries in N Africa, which is driving up wages and working conditions as well as giving those countries access to trade with the EU? Not very many I’ll bet. Yes, it’s just another reason to remain that is never mentioned.
    But of course the EU was considered toxic by those running LibDem campaigns for years, so we helped ensure the Brexit vote and now are desperately trying to make up for past stupidity.
    I sometimes despair at the divergence of campaigns from policy and principle. We demand better!

  • Sadly, I think that the ” But if the UK is to remain an influential global leader, this is not good enough,” is based on a fond, almost jingoistic, fiction even a lot of Lib Dems want to believe. The UK hasn’t been a global leader in any real sense (other than self congratulatory rhetoric) since the end of WW2, and Lib Dems, above all need to stop pretending we are somehow special and get used to it. We are small player in a very big world.

  • Steve Trevethan 13th Dec '18 - 11:12am

    How can we realistically assert that we are a world leader when we have even skilled people starving, and people living and dying on our streets?

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Dec '18 - 11:47am

    @Steve Trevethan
    “How can we realistically assert that we are a world leader when we have even skilled people starving, and people living and dying on our streets?”

    Fair point but shouldn’t the same question be asked re. the USA?

  • Christian de Vartavan 13th Dec '18 - 11:49am

    Dear Alina, thank you for this excellent article which looks at the geo-political situation from some altitude and even with optimism despite the current events. No political reform can be implemented without principles, dynamism and vision. You are also absolutely right when you say: ‘a profound dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and perceptions about the way it works’. Liberalism has unfortunately often become a pejorative word synonymous with unreasonable permissivity. There is an immense grassroot work to be done across the country to change this and one which in my opinion would not take less than two years of solid efforts.

  • Nina Menocal 14th Dec '18 - 2:39pm

    I know little about politics. But I dare say the cradle of democracy was only Greece. Liberal Democracy, good force in the world and values don’t go well with Colonialism, democratic practices at home meant slavery abroad for the UK. The UK has not been an influential world leader since World War.

    Nina Menocal
    Curadora Independiente y Asesora de Arte/Independent Curator & Art Advisor
    Ciudad de México.
    Tel. +52 (55) 5564 7443
    Cel +52 55 5412 9011
    [email protected]
    [email protected]

  • Peter Hirst 15th Dec '18 - 1:25pm

    Action speak louder than words and yet we focus on the words to the detriment of the intention behind them. If we can look beyond the sound bites to a bigger picture we might understand better what is going on. It is up to each of us to come to our own conclusions as to which actions are leading us in the right direction of which the words are only a small part.

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