How Plausible is a United UK Foreign Policy in Response to New Threats?

The Salisbury nerve agent attack has exposed yet another level of complexity in Britain’s already complicated foreign policy situation. For the Briton in the street, the implications of foreign state undertaking a chemical attack in one of Britain’s most traditional cities, in the familiar setting of a chain restaurant and shopping centre of the type many of us know intimately, brings things into even sharper focus. It is a very visible reminder of the fragility of the security many of us enjoy in our private domestic lives in the face of the darker forces at work in the international system. As with terrorist attacks in Manchester, London and elsewhere, sudden extreme violence breaking into our normal lives is alarming. But the idea that a foreign state, and certainly one as powerful as Russia, is carrying out such attacks using trained professionals backed up by vast military resources brings a fresh sense of personal threat.

How are communities across the UK likely to react? This isn’t as clear as it should be. Political and social media reactions have been predictably divided between those falling largely behind the British Government in calling out Russia, and a cynicism about the reporting and UK response to every aspect of the attack and its aftermath. But it’s hard to know how these two sets of views resonate with the wider public. And this is important because recent history, typified by the vote to leave the EU, shows that wider UK public views are often misunderstood and certainly underestimated by much of the London based foreign policy world. Polling and focus groups have their uses, but also their limits. If the UK is to develop a coherent and credible response to aggression from abroad, and certainly one which exacts costs on British communities, a deeper understanding and engagement with views of people across the UK is increasingly important, if not essential.

For the past year the British Foreign Policy Group has been holding a combination of public events and private interviews around the UK to begin to build this more nuanced and grounded picture of different UK communities’ and regions perspectives on foreign policy issues – whether in relation to trade, security or diplomatic issues. We have been listening more than we have been talking and interested not just in the foreign policy issues raised, but in how largely London based policy makers and influencers are perceived by people in other parts of the UK. We’ve also been trying to understand better the motivations people have behind their perspectives, and the issues they feel are being neglected.

We are only part of the way through this process, but there are a number of aspects that are valuable as pointers for how different communities are engaging with issues that have major implications for our collective safety and prosperity, recent events included.

Firstly; the impact of alternative news sources and conspiracy theories is readily apparent, if limited. One particular well-worn narrative in this regard, pushed by Russian backed sources, is that Syrian civil defence volunteers (the White Helmets) are in some way a British/ American/ NATO supported Al-Qaeda front. Despite being proven false numerous times, this belief was expressed confidently by people from a range of backgrounds in conversations around the country. But it does not seem as prevalent or as vehemently held a view as a survey of social media might suggest.

This is not to say there is a ready audience for UK government perspectives. Far from it, there is a healthy, and in some cases not so healthy scepticism of official perspectives coming out of London. This has been heightened in the context of Brexit negotiations by growing doubts as to the basic competence of the political classes to deliver for different regions. With regards to foreign policy these concerns generally relate to what are seen as practical and immediate areas such as international trade and investment. There are real variations around the country in how these concerns are articulated. In Southampton they were expressed in relation to maritime issues. In Leeds much was made of Chinese investment, but supporting it all is a surprising commonality of sentiment expressed as a sense that different parts of the UK need to focus on doing for themselves now what they perhaps waited too long for Whitehall to deliver in the past. Fundamental mistrust and disenchantment with the centre is growing, and this should be a real concern.

Yet it would be a mistake to interpret this as somehow an inevitable weakening of British coherence on foreign policy issues, and indeed with the right strategies it could form the basis for its strengthening. For whilst there is a growing regional sense of the need to develop international visions and strategies distinct from those of London, this is unfailingly framed in a strong desire simply to be treated fairly. This very practical and unsentimental framing, and the quiet determination with which it has been expressed again and again in discussions stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly shrill and hysterical tone in our national and social media debates.

The chemical attack on people in Salisbury is just the latest manifestation of a rising tide of international issues now breaking through into our everyday lives here in the UK. The power of that basic sense of fairness on the part of communities across the UK should not be underestimated as a foreign policy strength. Not only is it a potent source of support to any government that has the will to champion the importance of rules even when that means standing up to powerful adversaries. It also represents a vital source of resilience, both as a very simple unifying value that brings us together as a country, but also as a check on those looking to serve their own interests via fake news and propaganda. Our work building a more national conversation on our international position and choices is still in its early stages, but it is already clear that despite the challenges, engaging nationally on foreign policy issues can deliver valuable insights and strategies for strengthening our common interests and values in an increasingly turbulent world.

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.