Theresa May’s Brexit speech underscores need for British Foreign Policy Group

The Prime Minister’s Brexit speech has inevitably attracted a huge amount of attention to the broad terms of the UK’s negotiating position with the EU 27. Somewhat less attention has been given to the broader vision for the UK post-Brexit -a ‘Global Britain’ – ‘a great global trading nation’ which seeks to ‘get out into the wider world’.  This is perhaps inevitable given the level of interest and concern over the terms of Brexit, but it is another reminder of how such relentless focus on our relationship with Europe, important as it is, hides even more profound questions about the UK’s larger international ambitions which are not being adequately addressed on a national level. Concerns that government rhetoric regarding ‘Global Britain’ lacks substance may have some truth, but if so it is because national capacity to engage effectively on what ‘Global Britain’ could or should mean is limited. This is dangerous at a time of growing global volatility when British foreign policy decisions have far reaching consequences for everyone living in the UK and our Overseas Territories.

This week the British Foreign Policy Group is launching a report that explains why and how the UK’s capacity to engage internationally must be strengthened if we are to successfully harness the dynamic global changes underway that extend far beyond those represented by Brexit – significant though they are. Climate change, advancing technology, population growth, and increasing multi-polar competition, including new challenges from non-state actors, are all undermining old certainties and throwing up new challenges and opportunities. The UK has a real chance to use its departure from the European Union to develop new strategies and tools to reframe and advance its interests for the benefit of all its citizens. But this requires an investment in our foreign policy apparatus, as well as a renewed, and inclusive, discussion of what kind of foreign policy engagement and tools are required to meet the needs of British citizens in the 21st Century.

The UK may still have a valuable and significant global role, but that is likely to have limited appeal to UK tax payers facing proliferating demands unless Global Britain is more clearly rooted in real benefits for citizens across the UK. These benefits are significant – from basic security to the ability to enjoy the lifestyles many take for granted, but such benefits are too often taken for granted, and the case for investing in them via an ambitious and engaged foreign policy engagement are rarely made in accessible, persuasive terms.

This is what the British Foreign Policy Group is being established to achieve, and our report ‘Why a British Foreign Policy Group’, published this week, explains why and how we plan to build a greater national engagement on foreign policy issues and how they impact the lives of everyone in the UK. We must seize this opportunity if the UK is to ride the storm of global change ahead, reach out effectively to old friends and new allies alike, rediscover its role as a great global trading partner, and advance British interests for the benefit of all our citizens. A running commentary is not necessary, but just as Theresa May has seen the importance of bringing some clarity to Brexit, more substance on what ‘Global Britain’ will actually look like is equally, if not more important. The government could do more to offer that clarity, but will struggle to do so in isolation. The British Foreign Policy Group will play an important role in helping identify and publicise the opportunities, and public interest in pursuing an engaged and effective British foreign policy.

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.