National Engagement on the UK’s Place in the World: Work in Progress

The British Foreign Policy Group has now for two years hosted events and engaged with communities around the UK on our international links and ambitions. Our most recent event was in Coventry, talking to people from business, local authority and civil society, along with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and others, on what communities in the city and wider West Midlands want from our foreign policy as it relates to trade, influence, security and other issues.

This event in particular was indicative of how strong the UK offer is, and how rightly proud communities across the UK are about the advanced industries, technologies and skills that different regions and devolved nations are offering around the world. In common with our other events Brexit, and particularly the uncertainty around it, was discussed, often as presenting significant challenges – particularly in the short term. However there is little sign of the slightly hysterical tone of the debate in London. Instead most parts of the UK seem prepared to face the politics and possible disruption ahead with a practiced resilience developed over decades of feeling slightly peripheral to many key international policy discussions. Indeed, while there are many concerns about the impact of Brexit on regional economies, there is a contradictory sense occasionally that the vote was a rare moment when the voices of some communities outside London and the South East were seen to matter as much or even more than those within the capital city on a major foreign policy issue.

What Brexit has certainly accelerated is a growing sense of determination in different parts of the UK to develop their own international strategies, links and capacities at a time when national politics seems ever more distracted and Whitehall capacity under pressure. Whether it is Scotland opening up offices abroad, Manchester’s ambitious internationalisation strategy, or the Midlands’ Foreign Investment Hub in Birmingham, different parts of the UK are moving ahead ever more quickly with their own plans, conscious that the years ahead are going to see fierce competition for investment, skills and industries, both globally, but also within the UK post-Brexit. These regional initiatives are coinciding with more profound changes in how communities and individuals see themselves relating to international issues via social media and specialisation of news media, with stronger opinions and sense of influence in relation to particular foreign policy issues – whether climate change, Israel/Palestine, Russia or Brexit itself. Alongside this is a more focused consideration by large UK based organisations of how they deploy their ‘soft power’, that is the cultural resonance, influence and relationships generated by bodies as diverse as the British Council, Premier League, British Standards Institute, our major universities, or the City of London.

This all clearly presents challenges of coordination and risk of fragmentation. Yet there are good reasons for feeling positive about the innovation that is taking place in how the UK reaches out into the world if it can be accompanied by an evolution in how the FCO and others in Whitehall engage with these changes. This starts with developing a much more nuanced understanding of what is happening in the UK; work which we are developing alongside the FCO and others. It also means reaching out to and building new partnerships with some of the key emerging stakeholders in the UK’s international profile – whether they are regional actors such as Manchester, or organisations such as the Premier League. The third priority is for the FCO, DIT, MOD and other internationally facing departments to build greater links with the wider public on the UK’s place in the world, not to convert everybody to a particular way of thinking, but in order to be, and be seen to be, a part of the wider national conversation, interested, engaged and respectful of popular engagement on foreign policy issues.

This will of course require resources, but less than may be imagined. Our conversations around the UK suggest most if not all of the emerging stakeholders in the UK’s place in the world see the value and self interest in engaging each other and Whitehall more effectively, but they just lack the systems to do so strategically at present. Indeed, the FCO in particular will likely find many of these regional and other groupings to be welcome supporters of more strategic national investment in our engagement with the world in support of our collective interests. These actors will in turn provide new avenues of influence and international engagement from a trade and diplomatic perspective.

The UK clearly faces many challenges over coming years from both domestic and international changes. Our work thus far suggests the UK benefits from vast pools of expertise and influence that are only just beginning to feel their own power. The challenge for all of us is to ensure these changes supplement rather than undermine a coherent UK voice in the world, and that requires a common understanding and articulation of our shared identity and interests as a country today. In the current environment that may seem a challenge but our work suggests otherwise. There is, on the whole, a powerful desire to find common ground and contribute to the wider national success. Yet Brexit has come after many years of profound change for large parts of the UK. Memories of Empire and world war have receded largely into history. Mono cultural heavy industry has given way to diversity and innovation in many regions. Many of us are still struggling with the transition and proper relationship between our past, present and future as a 21st century country.

Our event in Coventry juxtaposed the significant international economic advantages and links enjoyed by the city and region with the values and identity it wishes to project, as embodied positively in Coventry Cathedral and its active tradition of promoting international peace and reconciliation. One speaker expressed it well when he said. ‘As a city and region we have a huge amount we can contribute globally and a huge amount that we want from the world. All the pieces are there. We have great international reach, advanced manufacturing, and skills. However we struggle to articulate who we are and want to be in 2018, and until we can confidently tell a modern story about ourselves today, with all of its diversity and innovation, we will struggle to fulfil our global potential’. This seems apt for much of the UK, and underlines why a dialogue about our place in the world has to engage with our great artistic, cultural, standards setting, science, sport, educational and other such ‘soft power’ institutions. All of these have a role to help us understand who we are in the world in 2018. Yet business, diplomacy and even security perspectives are important too, as conversations about identity can’t be somehow ‘sandboxed’ away from real everyday priorities. Quite the reverse; our search for identity can only be practical in the context of our everyday needs and interactions with the world around us. So far from being a distraction, our conversation about our place in the world is absolutely central to defining who we are as a 21st century country. In 2019 that objective will become even more important, and through our events, reports and other activities, the BFPG will continue to provide a platform for continuing an ever more urgent national discussion about our international position and choices.

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.