PM’s vision for a global Britain needs to be backed by resources

It is telling that precious little news coverage of Theresa May’s foreign policy speech at the Mansion House on Monday referred to her central theme. The Prime Minister spoke about her support for globalisation, but the need to humanise it in a manner which many on both left and right would largely recognise and embrace. It was a welcome signal too that she intends for the UK to champion globally a moderate approach which is a far cry from the fears of a ‘little englander’ mentality that greeted the new government.

Yet the media focus on the Brexit aspects underlines the scale of the challenge the government faces as it seeks to re-orientate the UK to a new globally dynamic future. The unfortunate truth is that popular and elite engagement on foreign affairs in Britain has dwindled over the past 30 years to the point at which we are in danger of becoming at best single issue actors – and at worst victims in an ever more vicious international struggle for influence being waged across the world.

This thinning of UK foreign policy expertise has taken many forms. The decline in traditional media coverage of foreign affairs is itself partly the result of the technological change unleashed by globalisation. Universities are only just rediscovering the largely long lost role they once had as sources of practical expertise actively supporting the UK’s foreign policy interests. Expertise and insight in Parliament is becoming scarcer as constituency work trumps more strategic engagement on British foreign policy. Our home nations, regions and great cities that once ran active foreign and trade policies themselves now too often defer to Whitehall to take the lead. And our foreign policy and trade promotion apparatus itself is in many places threadbare. Our armed forces, particularly the Royal Navy, are approaching existential choices about capabilities we have long taken for granted. Our friends and foes alike can tell by the tired buildings and thinning numbers of experienced UK diplomats that, with important exceptions ‘punching above our weight’ appears on trend to be ever more plaintive as a national aspiration.

None of this is irreversible, but fixing it requires a more serious national conversation about why foreign policy matters to every UK citizen, and what we are prepared to do to protect the international stability which delivers our security and prosperity. As we approach Brexit negotiations, the concern is that there will be little intellectual capacity to consider the broader strategic vision. For a country with such a hard-fought centuries old reputation for coming out fighting and winning for a secure and prosperous international system it is not good enough allow our public engagement or government capacity on foreign policy issues to continue with business as usual, or simply leave it to Whitehall to sort out. Brexit taught us we need to have a national dialogue on what the UK can and should achieve in the world. To make Brexit a success that dialogue has to begin now.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.